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The CERB, AKA “Sorry, Eh” Canadian Pandemic Money

Ottawa, May 2020
Ottawa, May 2020

“Did you apply for the CERB?”

It doesn’t take long for Ottawa to embrace new acronyms, even those created just weeks ago and promptly translated to be made available in both official languages, plus Inuktut (or maybe they are still working on this one since Nunavut is currently the only coronavirus-free place in Canada).

Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), Business Credit Availability Program (BCAP), Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA)—these are just a few of the new programs under Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan.

Basically, “sorry eh, apply for pandemic money and stay safe.”

The government of Canada announced financial support for individuals, businesses and sectors within days of the lockdown crippling economic activity and a shitload of the 37.59 million of us applied as soon as it was available.

I was one of them—thank you, Trudeau. I’m one of the 11.38 millions of Canadians who are receiving the CERB, a monthly payment of $2,000 for workers who have lost their income due to COVID-19.

My latest CERB application, Ottawa, May 2020
My latest CERB application, Ottawa, May 2020

It’s great—and it feels very, very weird.

It’s great because Feng and I are both out of work because of the economic lockdown yet, since we’re self-employed, we’re not eligible for traditional Employment Insurance (EI) benefits (i.e. unemployment compensation) available to employees.

We are technically pandemic-proof. We weren’t shut down like retail, food businesses or the service industry. We’re safe, we work from home and only need a computer with a reliable Internet connection.

However, clients in our respective fields were directly hit by the lockdown.

No clients = no work.

Feng is a middleman in international sales. He is screwed until borders reopens and restrictions are lifted in several key countries—sadly, he has no connection in the Chinese face mask industry. As a translator and a copywriter, I usually work on marketing campaigns, external communications, events, etc. all currently cancelled or postponed. Two of my two biggest clients are in the tourism industry and countless of others are forced to “realign priorities.” Ongoing projects were put on hold mid-March and it’s been dead quiet ever since.

We’re used to ebbs and flows. Some months are incredibly busy and others not so much. But in over ten years of being self-employed, we’ve never had to face the perspective of having zero project for the next god knows how long.

Then, we heard that self-employed workers would be eligible for the CERB.

“Are you gonna apply?”

“Maybe… You?”

“… Maybe.”

Hear the lack of enthusiasm? That’s because we had never applied for any kind of benefits.  

I’ve been almost continuously employed since my first Canadian work visa in 2004 and this is the first time I apply for and receive government money.

I’ve never claimed EI benefits, even though we were encouraged to do during the slow summer season when I was working as a French as a second language teacher. “Too much paperwork,” I rationalized. “Probably not worth it. Work will pick up in September.”

I didn’t get maternity benefits because of my unique sense of timing—I quit a well-paid job that came with a one-year paid maternity leave policy to explore a freelance career in December 2011 and I realized I was pregnant in February 2012. I was offered my job back and I stubbornly declined. I’ve never regretted my career move but in hindsight, I really could have used mat leave.

We’ve never even used healthcare benefits our rare respective “office jobs” offered because we simply didn’t need them.

Disclaimer, we do receive the Canada child benefit offered to all parents but the money goes directly into a saving account for Mark when he will be older.

Basically, we are a Conservative’s dream—we work and don’t use the social safety net. But the irony is, we’re both into far-left politics. I strongly believe in egalitarianism and I’m in for a proletarian revolution. I just think there are tons of people who need welfare programs more than we do. There’s probably a bit of misplaced immigrant pride as well—I want Canada to see me as an asset, not a burden.

I weighed the pros and cons of applying for a couple of weeks then decided to go for it. After all, we’re both out of work and the economic outlook is bleak. We can handle normal business ebbs and flows but we can’t weather the storm for months. We don’t spend much but food prices are rising. And while it has nothing to do with finances, without sounding too dramatic, I spent the month of April dealing with the fact my papi wasn’t going to make it and that I couldn’t be with my French family so I didn’t feel like adding “money” to my list of worries.

Getting the CERB turned out to be fast and easy—nothing short of a bureaucratic miracle considering as of May 14, the government has been handling 7.98 million of unique applications and paid $35.88 billion.

“That’s because everybody gets the same amount,” a friend who works for the government explained.

“That’s because entire teams have been reassigned to process benefit claims,” another friend added.

Phew, no Phoenix pay system disaster so far. The numbers are mind-boggling but helping Canadians was the right thing to do.

This is a good reminder that voting matters because in time of crisis, you don’t want to have a leader who is a complete idiot.

So, we’re not too worried about finances until July, i.e. the end of the 16—week CERB payment. After that… well, I have no idea—but chances are, neither do you.

How about you? Are you affected financially by the COVID-19 crisis? Is your government helping you out?

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