Accessing Income Support in the wake of COVID-19 (Updated March 26)
This document lists several income support programs that may be available to Ontario residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. This information is changing rapidly and we recommend that you check with the relevant government’s website for updated information.
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus. It has caused illnesses and deaths across the world, including in Canada, prompting extraordinary social distancing measures in an effort to contain the virus. The resulting economic disruption and uncertainty has undermined the income security of many in the province of Ontario.
This document lists federal and provincial income security programs that could assist Ontarians in these rapidly changing times. Some of these programs existed before the spread of COVID-19, while others have been modified or introduced as a response to the economic downturn. Nevertheless, many low-income individuals, including individuals with pre-existing disabilities and migrant workers, may still fall through the cracks because of deficiencies in current program design.
This document lays out a description of each income security program and makes, several suggestions for improving each. The pandemic highlights an urgent need for paid sick days, a more inclusive employment insurance program, and a more robust social assistance system. We must ensure that nobody in Ontario is left behind.
Employment Insurance (EI)
• What is it?
The Employment Insurance program provides temporary income support to individuals who lose their wages. This may occur if they lose their job, are temporarily laid off, or if they need to take time off work because they are sick or need to care for a family member who is critically ill. Two specific benefits provided under Employment Insurance are described below:
– Employment Insurance Sickness Benefits:
Workers who are sick or quarantined due to COVID-19 can apply for Employment Insurance sickness benefits. In order to qualify, the worker must have worked 600 hours within the 52 weeks before they apply.
Workers who qualify will receive the benefits for up to 15 weeks. Earlier this year, the federal government announced plans to increase the benefits period to 26 weeks, but this change has not yet been implemented.
– What has changed with Employment Insurance Sickness Benefits?
In response to the pandemic, three important changes to Employment Insurance sickness benefits were announced to simplify access:
1. Workers will not need a doctor’s note to apply for EI sickness benefits.
2. Normally, there is a waiting period of 1 week before a worker can start to receive EI sickness benefits. This waiting period has been removed. This means workers can now get EI sickness benefits for the week immediately after they stop working as well.
3. Workers who are under quarantine and are unable to make a prompt claim for EI sickness benefits can have their EI claim backdated to cover the period of delay.
A special hotline is available for applicants for EI sickness benefits related to COVID-19:
Telephone: 1-833-381-2725 (toll-free)
Teletypewriter (TTY): 1-800-529-3742
– Employment Insurance Regular Benefits:
Workers who have lost their job or been temporarily laid off as a result of COVID-19 can apply for Employment Insurance Regular Benefits. In order to qualify, the worker must have worked a specific number of hours within the 52 weeks before they apply. The number of hours required will depend on where the worker lives and is usually between 420 to 700 hours. Workers can find out how many hours they need at this link.
Workers who qualify will receive the benefits from between 14 to a maximum of 45 weeks. Once a worker applies for EI Regular Benefits, there is a 1-week waiting period before they can begin to receive the benefits. The federal government has not removed this waiting period.
– What has changed with Employment Insurance Regular Benefits?
As of the date of this posting, Employment and Social Development Canada has not announced any changes being made to Employment Insurance regular benefits.
• What is missing from Employment Insurance?
First, EI benefits should be increased. EI provides benefits only equal to 55% of a worker’s earnings, up to a maximum of $573 per week. This amount is too low to help low income workers survive, particularly in expensive urban areas.
Second, eligibility for EI should be expanded. Many workers do not qualify for Employment Insurance benefits because they cannot meet the required hours to qualify. This impacts low-wage and precarious workers the most, including those who work part-time or temporary jobs, rely on tips as a part of their wages, or have irregular or unpredictable hours.
ISAC and other organizations have long advocated for improvements to EI, to make it accessible to all workers. These improvements, called for in this petition, include reducing the required hours to qualify to 360 hours and increasing the amount of the benefits.
Workers who do not have sufficient hours to qualify for EI benefits may be able to get the federal government’s new Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which you can read about further below. This is a temporary measure only.
NEW: Canada Emergency Response Benefit (Updated on March 26.20)
• What is it?
On March 25, 2020 the federal government introduced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (“CERB”) to help workers impacted by COVID-19.
The federal government had previously announced two new benefit programs for people who do not qualify for EI (the Emergency Care Benefit and the Emergency Support Benefit). However, the new CERB merges and replaces those two programs.
• What details have been announced?
This Benefit will provide workers (including self-employed and contract workers) with a taxable benefit of $2,000 per month, for up to 4 months, if they have lost income because of COVID-19. The following are some examples of situations where CERB will be available:
– Workers who must stop working due to COVID-19 and who do not have access to paid leave or other income support;
– Workers who are sick, quarantined, or caring for someone who is sick with COVID-19;
– Working parents who must stay home without pay to care for children who are sick, or who need care because of school and daycare closures;
– Workers who still have their jobs but who are not being paid because there is not enough work and their employer has asked them not to come to work;
– Wage earners and self-employed individuals, including contract workers, who would not otherwise qualify for Employment Insurance.
To qualify for the CERB, a worker must be at least 15 years old, and have earned $5,000 or more in the last 12 months. This includes income earned from employment and from Employment Insurance pregnancy or parental benefits. In addition, the worker must cease working for reasons related to COVID-19 for at least 14 consecutive days to qualify for CERB. During the 14 consecutive days, the worker must have no employment income, nor income from EI or a similar source.
Workers will be able to receive the CERB whether or not they qualify for Employment Insurance. However, workers who are already receiving Employment Insurance regular or sickness benefits would continue to receive their benefits and should not apply for the CERB. If their EI benefits end before October 3, 2020 and they are still unable to return to work due to COVID-19, then they could apply for the CERB. Workers who receive the CERB for the maximum 16-week period and who are still unemployed afterward, can access EI regular and sickness benefits if they qualify for them.
The federal government expects that applications will become available in the week of April 6, 2020 through the Canada Revenue Agency and Service Canada. Eligible applicants are expected to receive the benefit approximately 10 days after applying. Each worker may receive the benefit for up to a 16-week period any time between March 15, 2020 to October 3, 2020.
• What is missing?
This is a positive step to support workers impacted by COVID-19, including those who cannot access EI and who do not have paid leave. However, there are a number of concerns with CERB:
• CERB does not assist workers who continue to work but whose hours and income are reduced because of COVID-19. It should be made available to them to cover their actual loss of income;
• The federal government should ensure that CERB is available to workers regardless of immigration status. The legislation requires that a worker be “resident” in Canada in order to receive the CERB, and in our view this should include all workers in Canada regardless of status. The federal government should also ensure that information collected to administer CERB will not be shared with immigration enforcement;
• CERB provides significantly more money than the Employment Insurance benefits available to many low-wage workers. Low-wage workers who have paid into the EI program for months or years will receive significantly less EI benefits than the $2,000 per month provided by CERB. This difference in benefits between the two federal income support programs is unjustified in a time of crisis. Low-income workers who were laid off before March 15 should not have to wait until the expiry of their benefits in the weeks preceding October 3 to access CERB. EI should be increased to match CERB and provide $2,000 per month in benefits to all workers for the 16 week period; and,
• CERB is a temporary measure only. ISAC continues to call for permanent improvements to the EI program that would make it accessible to all workers, and provide a meaningful level of wage replacement.
Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP)
• What is it?
Ontario’s social assistance system is made up of two programs: the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which provides income support specifically to persons with disabilities, and Ontario Works (OW), which supports others who need financial assistance. Currently, a single person receives only $733 per month from OW or $1,169 from ODSP. A full, up-to-date rates sheet can be found here.
To be eligible for both OW and ODSP, Ontario residents must be from households in financial need. Many residents stand to lose all or part of their income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and may become financially eligible for social assistance. Note, however, that any income received from sources other than employment is generally deducted dollar-for-dollar from OW and ODSP benefits (notable exceptions are the Canada Child Benefit and the Ontario Child Benefit, discussed below). As a result, residents who qualify for other, more generous income support programs such as Employment Insurance may not qualify for either social assistance program.
In addition to proving financial need, ODSP applicants must also show that they have a substantial physical or mental impairment that is expected to last at least one year leading to a substantial restriction in activities of daily living. Long-term effects of COVID-19 are currently unknown, but many otherwise healthy individuals exhibit mild symptoms for a shorter period of time and are therefore unlikely to qualify for ODSP. Others who are more seriously affected by COVID-19 might qualify for ODSP on a case-by-case basis if they meet the above criteria.
• What has changed?
The Ontario government has announced changes to the administration of social assistance in response to COVID-19. Most importantly, payments to recipients will no longer be suspended because of a recipient’s failure to report income. The Eligibility Verification Process reviews are also put on hold. Recipients may also be able to access additional discretionary benefits by contacting their caseworkers.
• What is missing?
First, the social assistance benefit rates should be increased. These rates are far below the poverty line, and are less than the cost of food and housing alone. In the past year, the rates were not increased to keep up with inflation, and are insufficient for coping with additional needs during a pandemic.
Second, earning exemptions for OW and ODSP should be expanded. Any income received from sources other than employment is generally deducted dollar-for-dollar from OW and ODSP benefits. This prevents low income Ontarians to fully benefit from EI or the newly announced emergency benefits at this critical time.
Third, there should be a hold on collecting and assessing overpayments from recipients. The Ministry has discretion to forgive overpayments that may arise if recipients have difficulty in reporting income during the pandemic. The resulting stress and financial pressure would be detrimental to the health of recipients and the public.
• What is it?
In Ontario, low-income families and individuals who are not already receiving OW or ODSP may qualify for Emergency Assistance if they face an emergency situation where they cannot meet basic needs or shelter expenses. The amount of assistance is up to the discretion of an administrator, and it may include an amount for basic needs, shelter, and benefits. Typically, an applicant only receives Emergency Assistance for a period of up to 16 days and cannot apply more than once in a six-month period (with some exceptions).
• What has changed?
Ontario has announced that access to Emergency Assistance will be expanded for those who do not qualify for emergency financial support under federal programs. In particular, Ontario will make Emergency Assistance available for up to 48 days at a time (up from 16) and allow families and individuals affected by COVID-19 to apply for Emergency Assistance more often than once every six months. An application for Emergency Assistance can now be made here.
• What is missing?
It is not clear exactly how much assistance Ontarians affected by COVID-19 can expect to receive from this program, given its discretionary nature.
Canada Child Benefit and Ontario Child Benefit
• What is it?
The Canada child benefit (CCB) is a tax-free federal benefit paid monthly to help with the cost of raising children under 18 years of age. Eligible families receive up to a monthly maximum of $553.25 for each child under 6 years of age or $466.83 for older children. Eligibility for CCB requires filing income taxes and meeting certain immigration status requirements.
The Ontario Child Benefit (OCB) is an additional payment provided by the Province of Ontario to low and moderate income families who receive the CCB, up to a maximum of $120 per child. For those families who receive social assistance but are ineligible for the CCB or OCB, Ontario provides the Transition Child Benefit (TCB), which is $230 per child each month.
• What has changed?
The federal government has announced that the May 2020 payment will be increased by up to $300 per child, for one time only. Each family receiving CCB will get an average of $550 more than other months, depending on their number of children and income level.
• What is missing?
Eligibility for the Canada Child Benefit should be expanded to provide a benefit to all children. Some of the most vulnerable children, including some Canadian-born children, are excluded from support under the existing federal CCB and provincial OCB (top-up) programs. Excluded children receive only TCB, an amount that is currently less than 50% of what is available under CCB, before the potential OCB top-up. The Income Tax Act must be amended to provide these benefits to all children, regardless of their parents’ immigration status.
The Ontario government has also promised, as a response to the pandemic, to provide an additional one-time payment of $200 per child up to 12 years of age, and $250 for those with special needs. However, it is still unclear how, when, and to whom the payment will be provided.
Forthcoming: Other Income Support Programs
In the following days, ISAC will provide information about additional income support programs that may be available at this time, including workers’ compensation, Canada Pension Plan benefits, and Old Age Security.