Behind the scenes: how CERB went from an idea to a reality

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OTTAWA –
It was a sunny March 18 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presented the government’s first big attempt to contain the economic fallout from COVID-19 in the form of an $ 82 billion rescue package.

The effect of the viral pandemic in Canada was already bad: schools were closing, workplaces were closing, employees were laid off, or their hours were significantly reduced.

The response of $ 82 billion has been immense in every way. But the number of unemployed would overwhelm him, and they were still increasing.

The Monday before Trudeau’s speech there had been 71,000 EI claims – surpassing the 38,000-day record set during the global financial crisis just over a decade ago.

The day Trudeau announced the first backup plan, 87,000 requests were made, almost 10 times the usual daily volume for mid-March.

On Thursday morning, those responsible for overseeing the safety net program began to feel the magnitude of what was to come. It would take months to process all incoming complaints in the usual way.

They were to explain it to half a dozen senior officials in a conference room and the rest by videoconference for a regular morning briefing.

“Dunkirk” was the comparison that stuck.

At the start of World War II, faced with an unexpected attack from Nazi Germany, an Allied army withdrew to the French city on the English Channel. A huge sea transport saved some 340,000 British, French and other soldiers so they could fight another day.

The rescuers took hundreds of ships, including fishing boats and pleasure boats whose civilian crews left from the south of Great Britain. Navy officers requisitioned riverboats and took them to sea to participate in the most powerful effort in history.

“Dunkirk. It was the magnitude of what was going to happen, what would be needed. Everyone in the room straightened up.

“There was no way to continue delivering the EI program the way it is generally offered,” said an official in the room, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not weren’t allowed to speak publicly about what was going on behind. scenes speak.

Briefings were held in less than an hour for key ministers and the Clerk of the Privy Council, the most senior federal official. In the afternoon, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough spoke to the rest of the cabinet.

The Liberals promised an advantage for those who stayed at home to care for a sick child or family member, and a second advantage for those who had to quarantine or isolate themselves. Qualtrough said the multiple programs are already complicated to navigate for Canadians and to explain to government.

Public servants cloistered at meetings that started Thursday afternoon and extended over the weekend simply decided to combine everything into one benefit, especially if an EI beneficiary was going to receive less than the news consolidated benefit, which the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives estimated at 84. percent of beneficiaries in early April.

Eligibility must have earned $ 5,000 in the previous 12 months and now have zero income thanks to COVID-19. But gaps have appeared. Students did not have enough income to qualify. People whose hours have been reduced but who still have an income would not be either.

“It wasn’t like a week later, we said,” Oh boy, we didn’t realize it. “In some cases there was a choice, in some cases not so much,” said Qualtrough in an interview. The idea was to spread a large net at first, then widen it to catch more people.

The basic system that provides employment insurance benefits is over 40 years old and has undergone a multitude of changes over the years. It is fragile, already needs to be replaced, and too many changes in its operation risked a debacle.

The delivery of benefits through Employment Insurance was over.

At the end of the weekend, the Canada Revenue Agency was called in to develop a delivery system because it processes millions of tax returns each year. Most Canadians already have tax accounts. Automation has been agreed to limit manual work which would increase processing and payment times.

At the same time, Employment and Social Development Canada has found some 3,000 laptops for employees who have been ordered to work from home – this is now closer to 7,000 – and has increased the department’s bandwidth to manage thousands of remote users.

(This week there were 19,500 remote users on the network, allowing the system to operate primarily from their homes, in addition to those who were still in the office.)

At the start of the week following Trudeau’s first announcement, new legislation was being drafted and a budget was being put in place: spending increased with one, rather than two, emergency benefits.

There was only one launch date left and a deadline to deal with the backlog of EI claims: April 6. CERB’s requests were launched that day.

“It all came together, but it is thanks to a government that does things very differently, through decision makers who assume a level of risk that was probably unprecedented,” said Qualtrough.

At the end of March, before emergency benefits began, the government had about 2.2 million EI claims. Today, more than seven million people, more than a third of the Canadian workforce, benefit from it. The government says it received about $ 26 billion.

There were hiccups:

  • Duplicate payments for those who applied for EI and then who also applied for CERB.

  • Pregnant women whose employment insurance files have not yet migrated to CERB and receive their first payments

  • Single mothers who cannot get help because the declines they have seen in child support payments are not taken into account in the income test.

The first has been corrected and the other two will be, according to the government, although the archaic accounting system makes the task more difficult.

There are also hours of waiting to go to a special CERB call center that was set up in nine days, including training 1,500 ESDC volunteers to manage the phones.

“Our public servants are doing all they can … to make sure we serve Canadians quickly,” Social Development Minister Ahmed Hussen, Service Canada call center manager, told a committee of the Commons on Thursday. in a context of unprecedented demand in terms of calls. “

Qualtrough said government is now monitoring how the $ 35 billion CERB interacts with a separate $ 73 billion wage subsidy program, which routes money through employers to help keep people on the job. the payroll.

Although officials considered the interaction between the two programs, Qualtrough said details of the policy were still being worked out, such as how a worker shifts from one program to another and avoiding them. duplicate payments.

“We knew these things had to work together. We’re not saying retroactively, “Oh shit, we have to make sure these things work together,” said Qualtrough.

“So at the moment we are dealing with the reality of who is not captured, will they be captured elsewhere, who should we still capture … and who is asking what. “

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 3, 2020.

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