Contract, self-employed Canadians worry about end of coronavirus support

Summers are big business for the Butlers. Samantha and her husband John are partners in a small photography and videography business, with the bulk of their work taking place during the summer wedding season. But this year will be different.

“We’re facing about $30,000 of lost income,” she says. “And we’ve only lost weddings up until mid-July — we’re not even looking at August, September and October.”

The Butlers both received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and will also receive increases to the Canada child benefit for their three children, as well as provincial support for parents whose children are home from school during the virus.

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While Butler says she’s grateful the support will cover their expenses for the next few months, she’s concerned about what happens after the CERB coverage ends. The Butlers usually support themselves all winter on the income they make during wedding season.

“Following October, we don’t really have weddings that come in,” she says. “Say we start earning income in September . . . . We would be really grateful for that, but the issue becomes, ‘What do we do in the winter?’ We’ve lost our whole summer income.”

Paul Leroux, the owner of sole proprietorship LPA Sound Services, has similar concerns. He specializes in live music events and saw all of his scheduled events fall through until at least August as venues closed and large gatherings were banned in Ontario.

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While he applied and received the CERB, he says the closures will have a knock-on effect on people in his industry once they’re lifted. Typically, during the summer tour season, he and other small businesses can pick up work in the city because many live sound technicians are travelling with bands. But with tours cancelled and technicians grounded in Toronto, those hourly gigs aren’t likely to be available, even if venues are back up and running in the summer. “Everybody’s going to be hungry now,” he says.

These concerns are common among gig economy workers, says Sunil Johal, a fellow at the Brookfield Institute and Public Policy Forum who chaired the federal expert panel on modern labour standards in 2019. “With where this pandemic seems to be headed, it doesn’t seem likely that, come the fall, we’re going to be back to completely business as normal. I think there’s a huge amount of anxiety for lots of folks in the labour market.”

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However, Johal expects the federal government to be attuned to that reality. “I don’t think, in good conscience, they’re going to be able to just drop the CERB and move on to regular business if the pandemic hasn’t shifted course and things are [only] relatively back to business as normal. . . . I think we’re seeing a great example of policy-making on the fly, here.”

He notes the federal government has made multiple changes to both the CERB and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy in the weeks since they were announced. “I actually think that’s a good thing. It demonstrates that the government is listening to the concerns of Canadians, that they may or may not be eligible or this may not benefit them in the way that was originally envisioned.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in early April his government was aware the CERB wouldn’t cover all gig economy workers and was looking at ways to offer additional support. “We know there are many vulnerable people who won’t be able to access this support who will need extra help,” he said in a press conference on April 2.

Read: Considerations for employers rehiring with help from federal wage subsidies

It’s possible the CERB could eventually become a universal basic income program, a move Spain has been considering in recent weeks. “Once we move past this pandemic — and let’s say there’s a vaccine in a year — I think, in a lot of cases, it’s going to be really hard for the government to pull back that support for people because they’ve become reliant upon it and it’s really helping them meet their needs. I think we could certainly see a more targeted form of this become a permanent part of our policy landscape going forward.”

For Samantha Butler, it’s unclear what will happen after the shutdown ends. She says it wouldn’t really be feasible for her and her husband to pick up temporary jobs in the interim, because they’d have to quit them in the spring to focus on their business again. And for that business, she expects a slow start.

“I don’t think people are going to rush out to get photos for their business right away, or even get married. I think people are going to be scaling it in and that’s fine. In that interim period, where we’re trying to find our sea legs, I think that support needs to carry on a little bit longer. Gig workers and business owners and self-employed people can’t just start back up again.”

Find out more about the Canada Emergency Response Benefit here.