CHAUDHRI: Financial help remains, but push is on for return to work

For those entering July unemployed due to COVID-19, the Canadian government has stepped up for you with more benefits in hand; but this time there are strings attached.

The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) has been extended by two more months; however, unlike before, employees will now be required to sign an attestation that acknowledges the government is encouraging them to look for work starting July 5, according to Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough.

While a draft bill requiring a stronger employee attestation did not pass (including an attestation that the employee is looking for work), the government message is clear: Employees should be getting back to work, and fast.

The CERB can be applied for through the CRA website at https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency.html. You can also apply through Service Canada.

If eligible, you can receive $2,000 for a four-week period.

The CRA has taken a similar approach to the CERB and is aligned with the vision of employees returning to work in the near future. The CRA website states with respect to those applying for CERB: “The CRA will be verifying that you are eligible to receive the benefit” and, “In cases where claimants are found to be ineligible, they will be contacted to make arrangements to repay any applicable amounts.”

Notably, the CRA website also now allows Canadians to report suspected CERB misuse through thee CRA’s Leads Program and many Canadians have heeded the call. According to CRA spokesman Christopher Doody, 600 tips have been made to the CRA on CERB misuse and a whopping 190,000 CERB repayments have been made to the CRA since the CERB was introduced; a troubling number suggesting many ineligible Canadians applied for the benefit before enforcement mechanisms were introduced.

Also worthy of note is the cross-checking the CRA will be doing with the employer Canadian Employee Wage Subsidy (CEWS) benefit and the CERB. For those employees who have returned to work to an employer utilizing the CEWS program, they will be required to repay CERB payments; according to the CRA.

What does this mean for employees? Even if the CERB period has not ended, if you are recalled, you are required to accept the recall unless it is unsafe to do so. If you do not, you may place your CERB benefit at risk and of course run the risk of losing your job, too.

We received many questions relating to the changes to legislation and CERB this week. Let’s get to it!

I was laid off in April due to a COVID restructure and applied for the CERB. At first, my employer did not know when I could be recalled but now I am getting calls almost every week to go back. Is it true that if I keep taking the CERB I might be subject to fines or jail if I don’t go back just because my employer asked me to?

While earlier in June the Liberal government prepared a draft bill seeking stiff fines and even jail time for those misusing the CERB, to date the bill has not passed and these new penalties have not been imposed. That said, if your employer is reaching out to you about a recall you have an obligation to communicate with your employer about the return. If your employer does not hear back from you for a period of time you may be deemed to have abandoned your job. Reach out to your employer as soon as possible and discuss your return.

I have asked my employer many times if it has applied to the Canada Wage Subsidy Program but I never get a straight answer and everyone says something different every time I ask. Some employees in my company were laid off and some were not. Doesn’t my company have to at least apply for the benefit if they laid off some employees? And if they don’t qualify, doesn’t it mean they were not allowed to lay us off in the first place? Thank you!

Great questions. Employers are not required to apply for the CEWS benefit, although they are encouraged to if it has experienced a reduction in revenue of either 15% or 30% (depending on the eligibility period). Employers that are eligible may receive a subsidy of 75% of employee wages up to 24 weeks, retroactive from March 15, 2020 to August 29, 2020. If your employer does apply, they are not required to inform employees. Also, even if your employer did not see a reduction in revenue it is not an absolute bar to laying off employees during COVID-19. Depending on your situation you may want to get legal advice to help with a fair recall or separation.

If I want to go get tested for COVID during working hours can my employer refuse? Also is my employer allowed to dock hours if I go get tested?

Your employer has a responsibility to maintain a safe working environment for all employees. If you believe you have symptoms or may have been exposed, you should get a COVID-19 test and your employer should accommodate that with no repercussions to you. Your employer doesn’t have to pay you for letting you go, however.

Write me at [email protected] and y our question may be featured in a future column. Until them stay safe my friends.