The Institute’s first convening in our new digital series explored how provinces have a critical role to play to meet the needs of people and communities during the pandemic and beyond.
The federal government is making new investments and developing new programs quickly to respond to the developing economic crisis. Changes to Employment Insurance (EI) benefits, the introduction of the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), and the incoming wage subsidy program for businesses have been critical to increasing financial stability for many. However, many people persistently excluded from income and program support will not be helped by federal funding and policy announcements. But provinces have the capacity to enhance these supports and fill in substantial gaps.
Moderated by Alejandra Bravo, the Institute’s Director of Leadership and Training, our expert panel of Maytree fellow Michael Mendelson, social justice lawyer Fay Faraday, and economics and labour professor Jesse Hajer, explored the priority interventions that would lift the floor of protection, highlighting workers and tenants. Michael Mendelson opened the conversation by outlining five priority areas of action for provinces.
Bolster Income Assistance
Each province has an income assistance program that provides income support for the most economically marginalized in our communities. In most places these programs were already inadequate at providing support. With COVID-19, life has become more expensive for many individuals, and provincial income assistance programs should be increased accordingly. BC is the only province to make substantial increases for non EI and CERB recipients and not claw back provincial assistance from those who are receiving federal income support. Mendelson suggested more provinces should follow BC’s lead.
Support front-line non-profit organizations that act as system navigators
Many organizations that are customised to help people access support and services are overwhelmed right now, at a time when their role is even more critical. Provinces should support their non-profit networks through regular consultation, collaboration, and increased resources.
Mitigate spread in residential and institutional facilities
Provinces own and/or regulate many places where people live together in close quarters, such as long-term care homes, correctional facilities, and shelters. We have already seen outbreaks that demonstrate how fast the virus can spread in these conditions. The safety of residents and those who work there must be a priority. Provinces need to implement aggressive measures, from emptying prisons of non-dangerous offenders to creating and supporting new emergency protocols when housing and caring for vulnerable populations.
While every province has an emergency ban on evictions, it doesn’t stop renters from racking up debt in deferred rent payments that they won’t be able to pay once those bans are lifted. CERB helps, but in some parts of Canada where rent is high, it isn’t enough. Provinces can provide subsidies to suffering renters now, which is a much better option than bailing out banks and property owners if deferred rent debt destabilizes the overall housing market down the road.
Increase pay for low-paid essential workers
So many of the essential workers we are depending on – personal care workers, grocery store clerks, cleaners for example, aren’t paid a living wage. Provinces should increase their pay by $1 to $2, and the simplest way to do this may be an increase to minimum wage overall.
Mendelson noted also that provinces need to start planning now to support students who may fall behind due to school closure, remarking that it could have a huge societal and economic impacts if not addressed.
Case-study: Long-Term Care Homes
Fay Faraday drilled down into how provinces can begin to re-examine the nature and quality of work for essential workers in low pay, undervalued and precarious work, particularly in long-term care homes. Women entered this crisis already over represented in low-wage precarious work. Now in the midst of the crisis they are the most likely group to both lose their job, or be in front-line roles that put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
This is certainly true in long-term care homes, where outbreaks have led to hundreds of deaths across the country.
BC and Ontario have both experienced an outbreak crisis in long-term care but have taken vastly different approaches. For example, BC made the decision to issue an order that all long-term care workers can only work out of one site and ensured full time work with adequate pay.
This is in contrast to Ontario’s model, which has also ordered that workers can only work at one facility, but has failed to change the conditions or bring in appropriate support.
(Slides excerpted from Faraday’s presentation, available in full here).
Ontario put the burden of navigating the conditions of long-term care homes on the worker. For workers in long-term care facilities, Faraday stressed the importance of them getting a top-up on wages to promote job stability and so that workers don’t have to take unpaid leave and/or reduce work hours at other locations in order to keep residents safe.
Case Study: Manitoba
Jesse Hajer provided a useful breakdown between the income assistance programs offered up by the federal government right now, and where provinces play a key role in helping people.
Provinces have responded universally on the healthcare front, but discrepancies exist in respect to social service supports, as marked in the stark difference between BC’s response to the crisis and Manitoba’s austerity approach
(Slides excerpted from Hajer’s presentation, available in full here).
Hajer emphasized the necessity of provinces taking a lead on financial support for the most vulnerable — specifically mentioning that more work needs to be done on provincial income assistance. It’s incumbent on provinces to not claw back CERB benefits going to provincial income assistance recipients. Provinces also need to start thinking through a long-term plan to provide rental relief during and after COVID-19. Hajer highlighted both Manitoba’s Rent Assist model as a framework to help low to modest income renters avoid evictions once the bans are lifted and BC’s leadership in providing a rent subsidy and increased financial support to renters.
The speakers’ presentations and the Q and A with participants highlighted key takeaways for advocates and policy makers that can help map our work in the weeks and months to come.
Provinces have an important role in ensuring that individuals, families and workers don’t fall through the cracks as financial support continues to be rolled out by the federal government. During COVID-19, provincial programs also need to be re-examined and strengthened to account for the varying needs and financial constraints many will feel throughout the pandemic. These programs include, but are not limited to: income assistance, senior assistance, mobility assistance and housing supports. Many of those served in these programs are some of the most vulnerable in society, which could result in devastating consequences if special attention towards these groups aren’t made during the pandemic. As mentioned above, this includes not clawing back CERB going to income assistance recipients; an important policy recommendation that the federal government advised. One participant noted during the webinar of their fear that: “A desire to return to “business as usual” and calls for austerity measures will cause us to pass this opportunity for rebuilding our social foundation and pursuing social and economic justice for all."
Additionally, COVID-19 has exposed the cracks that exist in our current long-term care home infrastructure. A decent work infrastructure, delivered through ensuring unionized jobs, guaranteed sick pay and government oversight are important takeaways as we begin to emerge from this crisis. Our long-term care facilities must not continue to be left vulnerable to disease, spread and outbreaks that could be better managed with the proper resources and attention that our seniors should have always been afforded. A long-term care facility should not have been a death sentence to our loved ones during the COVID-19 emergency.
For renters specifically, an incoming doomsday may be on the horizon. As talks to re-open the economy in some parts of the country occur, it may also signal a critical time for this group. For renters who’ve been unable to make full or partial payments due to loss of employment and/or income during COVID-19, the arrears accumulated could result in an onslaught of evictions once public health measures have loosened and eviction bans have been lifted. This must be prevented. For a short while following the pandemic [at least], a new framework is required to ensure people remain in their homes, and are given the financial support they need to transition into a post-COVID world. While the federal government may have a role to play in ensuring that renters across the country get the assistance [if needed] to cover their immediate costs, provincial rent subsidies could remain in place for a longer period of time after the pandemic. Manitoba’s Rent Assist program serves as a good template for how provinces can provide some rent relief to people with low and modest incomes after this crisis.
Lastly, this moment should restart a broader conversation on decent work and living wages. The Covid-19 emergency has made it clear that grocery stores are the backbones of our society. They keep our families fed; while workers in these facilities risk their lives daily to keep these operations going. The federal government promised to deliver a top-up to all essential workers to be done in collaboration with provinces and territories during the pandemic, but what happens after? Is it ‘just’ for these workers to go back to low and minimum wage pay? A provincial wage increase is long overdue for these workers in recognition of their role in keeping us safe.
In a federation like Canada’s, all levels of government play a vital role in ensuring the well-being and safety of all. To ‘lift the floor’ so that no one gets left behind, requires provinces to take a critical look at how their existing programs and supports must be improved to ensure this happens now, and in a post COVID-19 world.
Note: Video of the full convening is available here.
Brittany Andrew-Amofah is the Senior Policy and Research Analyst at the Broadbent Institute and Katrina Miller is the Program Director at the Broadbent Institute.