CERBing the Beat


by Roxanne Tellier

COVID-19 hit Canada hard somewhere around the second week of March, 2020. I remember it well, because the shutdowns began in earnest just days before my husband’s birthday, and right about the time that Mirvish Theatre sent me an email advising me that I’d be receiving a refund for the tickets I’d purchased for a show that week. The theatre had gone dark, as had most of the city’s offices, stores, services, and restaurants. 

There’d be no night on the town, no birthday dinner or musical event for us that year – nor the following. And when you get to a certain age, you’re not sure how many more birthdays you’re actually going to get to have, so celebrating them should be a priority.

Because we are older, and retired, most of the aspects of the lockdowns had less affect on Shawn and I than they did on those who are still in the work force. Sure, it was inconvenient, and learning to get up early enough to catch the ‘senior hour’ at the few stores that opened at 7 a.m. wasn’t much fun. But really, those pension cheques, small as they are, just kept showing up in our bank accounts like clockwork, so our income didn’t drastically change in response to the pandemic.

For most Canadians, however, COVID hit hard, and it made a beeline for their wallets. Layoffs, combined with unexpected costs, sent fear through the hearts of those in the gig economy. People that had travelled out of the country, whether for business or pleasure, were suddenly finding themselves having to pay for pricey emergency flights back home, their work or tours cancelled without notice. 

It soon became apparent that the entertainment business had a much longer reach in our economy than we had previously realized. For every musician, actor, and performing artist in Canada, there is a support team that can encompass a few in their personal orbit, or can stretch to cover a small city’s population of ticket sellers, ushers, hair stylists, makeup artists, agencies, seamstresses, catering companies, lighting crews, sound crews, and so many more.

For every restaurant that closed, the layoff of people directly employed there created ripple effects that spread across the country, as food chains were broken, and farmers wondered how to plan that year’s crops.

COVID-19 did not just upend the Canadian economy; it turned the economy upside down and shook it hard enough to loosen every dime that might have been put aside for a rainy day.  For a large proportion of Canadians, financial security was revealed to be an illusion.  

Ironically, many of those hit hardest were those that had embraced the idea of entrepreneurship, of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, and who had kicked over minimum wage jobs for a chance at the brass ring of working for themselves.

As many businesses closed their doors, the few that were allowed to remain open had to adjust to the implementation and costs of new social distancing requirements. As unemployment soared, the Canadian government had to act quickly in an attempt to safeguard jobs, protect businesses, figure out how to get funds to the vulnerable, and hopefully, avoid the nation falling into a debilitating economic depression that would take years to overcome.

Canada wasn’t the only country that acted quickly to protect its people. In advanced economies with solid unemployment and benefit systems in place, there are already methods in place that could ensure our neediest had a chance to receive benefits to tide them over. There were, however, special problems in distribution at times, often, in part, because of a lack of staff available to help those who fell between the cracks.

In the first few months of the crisis, Canada, along with many other countries, moved quickly to put into place wage subsidies for salaried workers, and compensation for the self-employed.

In Canada, France, Australia and Ireland, a weekly wage subsidy was available for all employees whose livelihoods had been impacted by business closure. The US, instead, spent most of their trillion dollars in subsidies on businesses, with just a small increase, in some states, to their unemployment insurance measures available.

I won’t pretend to be fully conversant with the vagaries of CERB – it was rolled out quickly, and then rolled back a few times, turning into a Frankenstein monster as bits and pieces were added on and then removed, seemingly on whims. For those that had filed taxes for the previous year that exceeded $5000, they were eligible for about $2000 a month in emergency response benefits, capping out at a maximum of $8000 for the initial four-month period.   

 A lot of people didn’t know how to apply, or applied in error through both Employment Insurance and the CERB structure, and yes, mistakes were made. Some applied to receive benefits over and above other benefits they were receiving, and then discovered that getting that extra money meant that they were on the line for paying extra taxes this year.

CERB ended on Sept 26, 2020, and was rolled into an enhanced EI program for those that continued to be unable to work, due to their employment being closed under government regulations. The amount that people can receive has been decreasing for some time, and, as the new Canada Recovery Benefit, provides a flat rate payment of $300 a week for up to 54 weeks, until October 23, 2021. Not everyone receives that full sum.

Between March 15, 2020 and October 3, 2020, when changes were made to bring the CERB response into line with the Employment Insurance benefits that would replace those payments, the Canadian government handed out $81.64 BILLION dollars.

It’s estimated that COVID-19 will cost Canadian taxpayers about $400 billion in benefits and business supplements. And that’s assuming we get back to business soon, and the economy reboots in a timely manner.   

A once in a century pandemic was followed by something incredible – a “Great Pause” in which modern societies responded to a crisis by stopping and shutting down most social and economic activity. While it may have been inevitable, due to the public health crisis, this public policy crisis is an utterly unprecedented grand experiment, and we’ve not seen the end result yet.

It’s been a very expensive virus, for nearly everyone. And we’ll be digging out from under for years.

Except for the privileged few. Those people that worked in government never lost a penny. If anything, they had access to funds more easily than the Average Joe. People who worked in Big Business – especially those in upper management – pfft! If they even lifted their head from their tablets, it was to attend a ZOOM meeting. They worked from home, and most managed to save a ton of money from not having the costs of commuting to work.

Yes, there was a core of Canadian workers that actually profited, in small or large ways, from this pandemic. And those people … are the ones who are now fomenting anger against those who have chosen not to return to back-breaking, unsatisfying, dead end jobs.    

We need a new word to describe the sort of person who profits from a global crisis, and then mocks those who didn’t manage, as they did, to turn a profit on the screams and blood of the sick and dead. Something that sums up the gross entitlement and privilege that oozes from their pores as they troll those people still trying to get back on their feet after losing their jobs, and in some cases, homes.

I’m really glad and proud that Canada stepped up to help those people who would have been the hardest impacted by the government mandated closures of small businesses. The alternative would have been horrific, and something that no modern, civilized society should contemplate. We cannot have a large segment of our population going hungry or homeless, through no fault of their own.

But there are those who, without knowing much about what those workers have endured, are now frustrated at the workers who have had a change of heart about working in minimum-wage, low-paid, thankless, dead-end jobs. They want their haircuts, or their cold beer and wings, and they want it now! How dare these servers, hairdressers, and shop attendants not be on hand, ready and willing, to cater to these entitled swine?

They can’t envision, nor could they handle, the daily mental and physical assaults that those who serve the public endure regularly – a stream of abuse from customers, bosses and coworkers. No long term job security, no benefits, no holiday pay, or even a guaranteed holiday or weekend off. Little respect from the public, despite many servers being better educated or smarter than the customers they serve. I remember well those days when the tips were low, or the times I had to pay for someone’s Dine and Dish, but then still had to tip out to the rest of the staff. Yeah. Been there. Wouldn’t go back. 

I finally got a haircut the other day. It had been far too long. I enjoy the experience of being pampered, of having my head and hair washed and massaged. It’s calming, and a little bit of luxury I can afford. The young hairdresser and I chatted throughout. He told me that the “Great Pause” had been very hard on him, financially, but that the CERB had enabled him to spend some time enjoying his life, his family, his friend, and his city. He told me that, for many people his age, it had been a time when they had been able to re-evaluate their lives. It had been a time to reflect, and to get off the treadmill for long enough to see the other possibilities out there.

Millennials have a keen sense of right and wrong, and they know when they’re not being treated with respect. All workers deserve emotional, financial and legal respect, but in the past, a lot of workers have merely been surviving.

As the city begins to re-open, with more relaxed rules on how staff in hospitality and retail can interact with the public, there’s been a tendency to point an accusatory finger at the staff who previously filled the open jobs in stores, bars and restos, but are now reluctant to return.  

But there’s no hard data to support any claims of a labour shortage.

Wages in stores and restaurants remain very low, at around $15 an hour. If there were a true labour shortage, those wages would be rising. But they are not, because store and bar management are asking staff to return at low wages and rebuild the store or bars profits on their own backs. In truth, raising wages would only make it harder for management to recruit cheap, desperate, and often inadequate, labour.

Quote: “It’s no mystery how to recruit and retain a more stable workforce: offer better pay, stable shifts, decent benefits, and improved training and safety. Inadequate and irregular hours are actually a bigger disincentive than low hourly wages (almost half of hospitality staff work part time). Reorganizing schedules to allow predictable shifts and more full-time roles would support genuine career opportunities in these industries, rather than a culture of lousy precarious work.

…………………………………………

Other countries have shown that service sector work can offer stable middle-class career paths. Canada could do the same, but only if we prevent employers from taking the easy out — namely, providing them with still more desperate workers willing to work for any wage. If governments respond to complaints about a labour shortage by cutting income supports or importing migrant labour, that will only short-circuit the improvements in job quality these sectors ultimately need.

Only once did Canada’s economy truly run out of workers. That was during the Second World War, when a massive, government-funded war effort ended the Depression and put every able worker into a productive job. We aren’t anywhere near that situation today, but we could be, if we wanted to. We could launch an ambitious post-COVID national reconstruction plan, featuring massive and ongoing investments in green energy, affordable housing, and human and caring services. That would create hundreds of thousands of jobs, end mass unemployment and improve living standards in the process.“  The Toronto Star, August 2021.

Instead, newspapers like the Financial Post, itself a poster child for being dependent on government handouts to pay the bloated salaries and bonuses of it’s incompetent management, work to incite the anger of citizens who have no idea of how back-room businesses actually work.

While writing this column, I put up a request on Facebook for information on what is the current rate of CRB. I was immediately hit with a snarky comment from a troll who wanted to know why I wasn’t out patrolling the streets to find a new job. Yeah, he’s gone. And I’m retired. But if I were someone trying to get back on my feet after the lockdown, and the loss of income for the last 18 months, I would likely have felt assaulted and shamed for not fulfilling that idiot’s idea of what constitutes my right to live and work in this country.  

I don’t know how to explain to someone that vile how ugly, privileged and entitled they show themselves to be. Worse still, that they appear to wear that ugliness and ignorance with pride.

When we consider all that Canada and the world has endured during this time, when we consider where we’ve been and where we are now, it’s a real shame and a black mark on our society, that we have to factor in the likes of those trolls, who seek to foment yet more anger, and to further widen the inequality and inequity that diminishes any nation hoping to become a better place for all that live there.

2 Comments

  1. I, too, am retired and my biggest complaint is the soaring costs of food prices! I am fortunate in the fact that I live in a Senior’s apartment( 9 years now) and my rent is based on my income. So, if the Government gives me a few more dollars, then my rent goes up! My Bell bill has been increasing steadily since 2012! A no win situation, unless I cut all lines of communication!
    There are lots of jobs around for those who wish to ditch the CERB, but no low rental apartments affordable to those in such situations…….rental prices have gone through the roof here in NS! Those renting hotel rooms are being forced out so tourists will have a place to lay their heads at night! It’s a dog eat dog world and no end in sight !

    1. Yes, agreed. I think it’s unconscionable that there hasn’t been a ceiling/moratorium on the price of food rising as it was on rents/mortgages – the only people that got richer during the pandemic were those who were selling that food and health and beauty items to us!
      Being a senior in Canada can be pretty dire, if you don’t have a financial cushion. I hear you … changes need to be made, especially in light of how many of us continue to live long past the ages of past generations. There’s no point in a long life if it’s spent in squalor, poverty, and misery.

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