Can Canada “restart” its economy when those who earn the least run the most risk?

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The reopening of the Canadian economy has barely started, but Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is already confident that the Liberal government is failing.

“At a time when our economy is in need of recovery, Justin Trudeau has given it a tranquilizer,” said Scheer on Monday.

Scheer’s concern is the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which the Conservatives say will now work as a disincentive to dampen economic recovery. The program should be changed so that it “always pays more to work,” Scheer said during the parliamentary session on Tuesday.

But getting the country back to work will involve much more important questions than whether the CERB has been properly calibrated.

The Conservatives’ concern about the potential decline in government assistance is at least ideologically consistent. They can also respond to dispersed, but real, complaints from businesses.

But Scheer’s use of words like “stimulus” and “tranquilizer” ignores the purpose of CERB.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says a gradual reduction in emergency benefits would encourage more Canadians to return to work. 1:51

CERB was not intended primarily as a stimulant – as there is not much economy to stimulate at the moment. To minimize the spread of COVID-19, huge swathes of the Canadian economy were deliberately sedated two months ago. The emergency relief benefit – which pays $ 2,000 a month for up to four months – was a quick measure to help people who were unable to do their jobs due to the pandemic.

If anything, the program was meant to make it Easier for the economy to stop.

The argument that he could act as a “tranquilizer” in the future is based, in part, on the fact that an individual can only earn up to $ 1,000 per month while remaining eligible for CERB.

A kind of adjustment that allows an individual to earn more than $ 1,000 while receiving a portion of the CERB (as analysts at the CD Howe Institute proposed in April and the Conservatives have asked for it since) could be a solution.

Worry about the wrong thing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when questioned by Scheer and journalists, responded that the government may have to start gradually reducing emergency measures – but that people still need help in the meantime.

The real impact of CERB on employment is not yet clear. But the design of CERB hardly seems to be the only problem – or even the most important – that should be on the minds of governments as the rest of us prepare to take our first steps outside the current lockout.

If people are asked to return to work, the first thing we should be concerned with is whether these workplaces are safe – or as safe as possible.

Collectively, we could decide that reopening the economy with some risk is better than waiting until the risk can be completely eliminated. But minimizing this risk remains the responsibility of governments and employers.

There have already been situations that should cause everyone to think – the epidemic among workers at the Cargill meat processing plant in Alberta and the spread of the virus among foreign workers on an Ontario farm.

Union representatives, business leaders and members of the media were on site Monday as the Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alberta, reopened after being closed for about two weeks due to of a COVID-19 epidemic. (Dan McGarvey / CBC)

No one is likely to forgive governments or employers for exposing people to risks that seem reckless or avoidable.

If people feel they can go to work without much risk to their health, they will also have one less reason to stick with CERB.

“Few people will trade long-term job security for a temporary benefit that may expire before the end of the summer,” said Sunil Johal, a member of the Public Policy Forum and the Brookfield Institute. “The huge caveat here is that people have to feel safe to go back to work, and that may not be the case in all types of workplaces right now. “

The other major barrier to returning to work could be the lack of child care. As long as schools and day care centers are closed or unable to function safely, someone will have to take care of the children – and this could make it difficult, if not impossible, for many people to return to work.

Will the people who take risks be the ones without options?

Some have suggested that parents will still be able to keep their children at home after schools reopen, if they feel it is not safe to send them there. But it could be an option only available to families who can afford to have a partner at home. In the absence of financial support, many parents and guardians may have to send their children to school in order to earn a salary.

And there are bigger questions here about who we ask to take additional risks, if we will be able to tell ourselves that these risks were absolutely necessary – and to what extent we compensate the people whose jobs expose them the most. virus.

COVID-19 has already revealed inequalities in working and living conditions by spreading among the poorest and least cared for among us. The reopening could further widen the gap between the haves and have-nots – especially if low-income workers are mainly asked to perform the tasks that involve the most direct interaction with other people.

If this is “essential” work, shouldn’t it pay better?

A recent analysis by CERB noted its “relative generosity” compared to the Quebec minimum wage and suggested that it could discourage people from returning to work. But such a comparison could also highlight the fact that some people will now be paid to return to jobs that pose significant new risks.

In Quebec, workers like cashiers, grocers and delivery people received a raise a month ago to make sure no one would do the job for less than $ 2,000 – even if some would only earn $ 88 from more.

Some health and social workers in Ontario also received a boost, while Trudeau offered to work with the provinces to raise the wages of “essential” workers in hospitals and long-term care homes that earn less than $ 2,500 per month. But all low-wage workers who are asked to work with or around other people may be able to argue that their pay should reflect the new risk they face on a daily basis.

But any low-wage earner who will be called upon to work with or around other people may be able to argue that their pay should reflect the new risk of their work.

If Scheer feels that he should always pay more for work, he should likely support actions to ensure that all workers comfortably earn more than $ 2,000 a month.

The transition from stopping to a new normal life and working with COVID-19 will necessarily require changes and adjustments. But beyond knowing how to calibrate the CERB so that it does not unduly discourage work, there is the greatest challenge of ensuring that the reopening does not worsen or reinforce the social and economic inequalities that existed before the arrival of this pandemic.

The act of reopening will not be as easy as telling people to go back to work.

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