The federal government launched the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) on April 6, 2020, as part of its $82 billion in aid for Canadian families and businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
By April 19, 2020, the Canada Revenue Agency, which administered CERB, had received 6.73 million unique applications, representing about one-third of the Canadian workforce. Between April and September of that year, CERB provided support to 8.9 million individuals, including 4.3 million women (48.5 per cent of total recipients) and 4,700 gender-diverse people (0.05 per cent).
The program assisted many Canadians. However, it also had serious gaps that adversely affected, or did not help, some of our most vulnerable citizens, partly because it was based on outdated conceptions of work and gender. Government assistance in future crises should be available to all workers, targeted toward the most vulnerable to prevent further devastation.
Despite CERB being administered over the course of five months almost three years ago, Canadians cannot seem to forget about it, amid concerns over repayment, praise and critique from analysts, and a recent audit of Canada’s COVID-19 benefit payments.
Pervasive fallout from COVID-19 – including rising rates of homelessness, food insecurity, fractures in health-care infrastructure, and precarious employment – continues to affect Canada’s most vulnerable people despite the rollout of what seemed to be responsive and successful programs aimed at easing the brunt of the pandemic crisis.
Gender analyses of CERB have provided steady commentary on the program’s efficacy. However, ongoing long-term analyses of how an income-replacement strategy has affected individual and social resilience, as well as pandemic recovery, is critical for ensuring inequality does not continue to expand.
Equitable wins from CERB
Statistics Canada reported in 2021 that CERB was successful in getting money into the hands of low-income, vulnerable Canadians during the first wave of the pandemic. More than half of workers who qualified for CERB and who were in the bottom 10 per cent of the employment-income distribution scale received CERB payments in 2020. About 50.4 per cent of eligible young men aged 15 to 24 benefited from CERB payments, compared to 53.9 per cent of young women aged 15 to 24.
Among visible minorities, as represented in 2016 census data, 41.4 per cent of those who had employment income of at least $5,000 in 2019 – a condition for receiving CERB – got benefits, compared to 32 per cent of individuals who do not belong to a minority group. Visible minority individuals were also more likely to receive CERB for the entire maximum 28 weeks.
Women who belong to visible-minority groups – with the exception of Black women – were slightly more likely than their male counterparts to have received CERB (42.3 per cent compared with 40.5 per cent). Eligible First Nations, Métis, and Inuit workers all were more likely to receive CERB payments, compared to non-Indigenous workers.
The federal government’s GBA+ summary for Canada’s economic response plan argues that CERB applicants were equally split between men and women, but acknowledges that employment recovery trends in 2020 were slower for women. Youth, newcomers and racialized Canadians applied for CERB in high numbers, reflecting the fact that they were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
CERB eligibility criteria expanded later in April 2020 to include workers who received a nominal income of $1,000 over a four-week period. It also extended benefits to self-employed and part-time individuals, many of whom were women, which contributed to assisting low-wage workers who hadn’t already applied for EI.
CERB was also not subject to a family income test and was therefore evaluated on an individual basis, which increased how many women were eligible for the benefit, particularly women living in two-person households with a sizeable income difference between spouses, as is often the case in families with young children.
CERB has also received praise for being easy to apply to and largely accessible. So why, then, has it received criticism from analysts?
Most vulnerable left out
One-third of unemployed Canadians received nothing from CERB during the first wave of the virus. Some 175,000 Canadian workers did not meet the eligibility threshold of earning at least $5,000 in 2019. Most gig workers, for instance, do not make more than $5,000 annually and were therefore ineligible for CERB despite unsafe working conditions, including proximity to others that might be ill. Gig workers now represent 13 per cent of Canadian adults. Statistics Canada also reports that more than one-quarter of Canadian gig workers rely on their gig earnings for more than 89 per cent of their total annual income.
Some workers faced unemployment during 2020 without being officially laid off, which barred them from accessing government support. Those who had not lost their jobs but had their hours cut (but still made more than the $1,000 cut-off) could not apply for CERB. This particularly affected those who had to work more than one job, which is typical for many low-income workers. Interviews with single mothers in British Columbia show that while income replacement was welcome, they still struggled to access food, PPE and other scarce necessities at the height of COVID-19’s first wave.
An estimated 1.8 million migrant and undocumented workers on the frontlines of the pandemic did not qualify for any direct financial support. Sex workers overwhelmingly did not qualify for CERB – either because they did not meet the $5,000-a-year income threshold or they did not file a tax return because of the fear of criminalization or their immigration status. Racialized, migrant, trans and Indigenous workers were particularly vulnerable to losing out on CERB for these reasons.
CERB also had an unintended consequence for many already on social assistance by raising their earnings and making them ineligible for other temporary income supports, deepening poverty for disabled Canadians, for instance.
This left community resources to fill in the gaps, but often not until vulnerable Canadians were experiencing homelessness, food insecurity or other crises.
Gendered consequences of CERB accessibility
An early-pandemic RBC report found that CERB disproportionately affected women’s return to work. Many women, especially in service industries, had to make the choice between $2,000 monthly payments from CERB or returning to part-time, high-risk work in retail or services with the increased risk of exposure to the virus. The choice to collect CERB payments was a prudent one in many cases, especially considering many schools remained closed; yet it remains a gendered consequence of CERB. Women tend to work fewer hours than men and disproportionately work part-time, often citing child care as the reason. Notably, the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic caused people to associate women with child care more strongly.
Countries such as Germany and France have implemented policies that are favourable to job-sharing and part-time work. However, most part-time work arrangements in Canada are not capable of delivering a quality living standard. Employment norms and practices that have made it easier for women to transition to a part-time job or to take leave have inadvertently contributed to weakening women’s position in the labour market, thus widening the gender wage gap. Part-time employment also typically does not afford these workers the kind of benefits and entitlements that full-time workers get, which puts part-time workers and their families at a disadvantage during a health crisis.
Researchers have found that reductions in working hours and job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic may strengthen or revive traditional gender norms in the household over the long term. Women exiting the workforce also risk an erosion of skills – which has the potential to exacerbate the gender wage gap.
Care of dependents is gendered. The care economy is shaped by gender roles that assume a male breadwinner, who is the main wage-earner, and a female caregiver. Despite erosions to the standard employment relationship and the male-breadwinner/female-caregiver model, labour and social policies have not changed to reflect this. As Leah Vosko and Lisa Clark write in Chapter 2 of the book Gender and the Contours of Precarious Employment, this standard gender model has contributed to improving job security and wages, and augmenting control over the labour process only for a select few, mainly male industrial and white collar workers. Jobs in these sectors to which many Canadians aspire – in part because they come with relative security and recognition from policymakers – are more and more difficult to get, especially for women, youth, newcomers and low-income people.
Programs that value care work, that ensure easy and equitable access, and that are uniquely designed to support vulnerable households were needed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. In crises, government assistance should be available to all workers and targeted towards the most vulnerable to prevent further devastation. CERB attempted this but ended up with some critical gaps. Recognition of work that is overwhelmingly feminized is also humanizing because it validates the difficult choices that Canadians had to make in the context of the pandemic.
More comprehensive work needs to go into how Canadian governments can truly respond to vulnerability, especially as global crises continue to affect individuals, households and communities here. As it stands, CERB was a significant policy win for many Canadians, but a focus on recognizing non-wage work and making financial assistance more universally accessible – and not dependent on outdated conceptions of work – are needed to ensure Canadian society recovers after a future crisis.