Coronavirus emergency response benefit doesn’t go far enough, say gig workers

Alexander Kurth is planning to apply for the new Canada Emergency Response Benefit once the application is available on Monday. But despite being a gig economy worker who wouldn’t be able to receive employment insurance, it’s only because of a timing coincidence that he qualifies for the new support at all.

Toronto-based Kurth is nearing the end of a two-week quarantine period after returning from travel outside of the country. His work doing live sound for bands at music venues and as a bartender for a craft brewery was wiped out by the coronavirus-related business closures. And, while he’s confined to his apartment, his other occasional gigs as a courier for Uber Technologies Ltd. and Foodora are on hold.

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The CERB will provide $2,000 per month for up to four months to Canadians who’ve lost their income due to the coronavirus pandemic, retroactive to March 15. It applies to wage earners as well as contract workers and the self-employed — who wouldn’t qualify for EI — and to Canadians who are still employed but aren’t receiving income because of work disruptions.

However, the benefit only applies to people who have lost all of their income — not just a portion of it. To apply, people must show they haven’t had any work for a period of two weeks.

“[The benefit] works out for me personally, but I know I’m in a unique position that way. I can prove I haven’t made any money for the past two weeks, but that’s just coincidental,” says Kurth, referring to his recent travels.

Kurth and other contract workers and freelancers say the structuring of the CERB fundamentally misunderstands the gig economy. While many contract workers, freelancers and self-employed Canadians will see much of their income dry up due to the coronavirus, they’ll likely still be able to string together some work, but not nearly as much as before.

Read: Feds introduce 75% wage subsidy to help employers keep staff during coronavirus

“Very few people working in the gig economy have just one full-time job. Everybody’s cobbling together a couple of hours from this job, a couple of hours from that job — and most of it’s been wiped out. But if you’re only working 25 per cent of what you were working before . . . obviously that’s not viable,” says Kurth, who plans to return to courier work once his quarantine ends on April 4.

As well, people need to have a social insurance number in order to receive CERB payments, which is an added barrier. “I know there’s quite a few people who maybe do not have the official status they need in order to have a SIN number,” he says. “Those people are still workers, they’re still in Canada, they still need to pay their bills and put food on the table.”

Robert Hiltz, a Montreal-based freelance journalist, also has concerns. Hiltz normally writes for a mining magazine, pens a twice-a-month politics column and does some additional communications work. While he says he has more work on his plate now than is normal, he doesn’t expect that to last as publications exhaust their freelance budgets and corporate clients stop spending money on communications projects. If that happens, he’d have to give up whatever work he does have left in order to qualify for the benefit. “It’s essentially incentivizing me not to work if things start to get a little bad.”

Read: Feds introduce $82 billion in coronavirus emergency support for workers, businesses

It’s also not clear how invoices that are paid weeks or months after they were submitted will affect workers’ ability to receive the benefit. “At this point, the way the thing seems designed, there’s no room for any of these problems,” says Hiltz. “There’s no room for the sort of weird and flexible pay schedule and life a freelancer lives.”

He was initially hopeful when he heard about the benefit, because it was rare for a government to acknowledge freelancers and contract workers. “In my years as a freelancer, I’ve never seen any government really looking out for freelance writers or gig economy workers. So, I’m not really surprised that this benefit doesn’t take us into account in any serious way, but I kind of hoped for better.”

In a Thursday press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that the benefit won’t cover everyone. “We know there are many vulnerable people who won’t be able to access this support who will need extra help. We’re making sure we’re flowing funds through shelters, through non-profits and charitable organizations as well, but there will always be more to do to make sure everyone, particularly our most vulnerable, are able to keep themselves safe and keep our communities safe by being able to do the right thing and have the support.”

The government is “looking at ways to help everyone in Canada that needs it,” he said, adding that the CERB and the 75 per cent wage subsidy for employers will help millions of Canadians.

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Paul Leroux is one self-employed Canadian who will benefit from the CERB. As the owner of LPA Sound Services, an audio-visual sole proprietorship that specializes in live-music events, he has seen all of his scheduled events fall through until at least August as venues have been closed and large gatherings banned.

“Everybody is hit, though,” he says. “Everybody in my industry has lost every job they had, because they’re all freelance.”

Leroux says he typically has one to six full event productions per month, ranging from $2,000 to $6,000 each, and up to a dozen hourly paid gigs where a venue hires his services. On top of concerns about paying rent and making ends meet, he also has regular business costs — insurance and storage for his equipment, as well as fees and more.

“Obviously, $2,000 is not going to cover the losses of my business . . . but it was a relief to hear about CERB,” he says. “I’m still a little worried, but it gave me some hope that I could survive it.”

Find out more about the Canada Emergency Response Benefit here.