David Ostrum is among many Canadians who have been caught in a bureaucratic Catch-22 right in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The Victoria, B.C., cab driver says it’s been impossible to contact the federal government to provide the additional information Ottawa says its needs to keep his Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments flowing.
In Canada’s two-tiered CERB system, Canadians who applied for the federal benefit through Service Canada rather than the Canada Revenue Agency must file bi-weekly employment insurance reports to keep receiving payments of $500 per week.
Ostrum, however, hasn’t been able to keep up his filing requirements as he says Service Canada is still processing his first report. The government says it needs more information from him, but the only way to provide it is by calling phone lines that are constantly jammed, he says.
Adding to his frustration, Ostrum recently received a Service Canada email prompting him to submit his EI reports.
“Our records indicate that you have not completed reports to show that you are eligible to continue getting paid,” the email reads. The message also suggests Ostrum contact the 1-800 number he says he’s dialled more than 1,500 times in the past few weeks without ever being able to speak to an agent to provide whatever missing information the government needs.
Receiving the email, Ostrum said via email, added “insult to injury.”
“Obviously, that’s just an automatically generated email,” Ostrum told Global News over the phone.
But the email is just one more indication that part of the CERB program isn’t living up to Ottawa’s mission to get emergency aid out fast to those in need, Ostrum said.
“I certainly do appreciate the fact that they’re giving us $500 a week,” Ostrum said. But the government must also make sure that everyone who’s entitled to it is able to get it, he added.
Ostrum is one of several CERB applicants who told Global News they received a Service Canada email reminder about filing their EI reports, something they say they currently have no way of doing.
Many Canadians who experienced issues with their EI reporting have been instructed to contact Service Canada via telephone lines that they say are constantly clogged, with no other means of getting in touch with the government, according to several interviews conducted with Global News.
The CERB provides $2,000 every four weeks for up to 16 weeks to Canadians who have lost most or all of their income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those who applied for the CERB through the CRA are required to re-apply for the benefit once for each four-week period. But those who have signed up through the EI system, like Ostrum, must submit more detailed bi-weekly reports confirming they are still eligible for the income support, just as they normally would to continue to receive EI.
Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) has told Global News that as of April 9, it has updated EI systems to no longer display the message that prompted clients to call Service Canada. It is unclear, however, what this means for those whose predicament predates the government’s fix.
“Further analysis is ongoing to address any outstanding cases that may have been held due to this issue,” ESDC said via email.
Many who applied for the CERB via the EI system are worried about making ends meet as their benefits are held up along with their bi-weekly reports. Others are concerned about not being able to communicate to the government that their employment situation has changed.
In Ottawa, Astrid Sandoval, a contract worker, says she initially applied for EI the week of March 23 after losing all her weekly hours amid the health emergency. But after two weeks she says she has resumed working on a reduced schedule.
Sandoval, however, says she hasn’t been able to update the government on her situation because she never received a letter from Service Canada with the four-digit access code every applicant needs to file EI reports.
Sandoval also recently received the automated email from Service Canada urging her to file her reports.
Sandoval, Ostrum and several others told Global News that their calls to Service Canada are usually immediately cut off. On the rare occasions when they’ve been able to get through and provide their social insurance number through an automated phone system, the call still cuts off right when they are supposed to be transferred to an agent.
Sandoval said she is grateful for the federal emergency benefit and was impressed with the speed with which she received an initial CERB deposit of $2,000.
Canadians who applied for the CERB through Service Canada and are deemed eligible for the benefit receive a first payment of $2,000, ESDC told Global News. However, they must file employment reports to continue to receive the benefit.
When it comes to followup payments, “I think that they should do something a little bit more efficient,” Sandoval said. She wonders whether the government couldn’t set up an online system to obtain the EI access code, without the need for paper mail or calling overwhelmed government phone centres.
Ostrum thinks the government should stop demanding detailed information from those who apply for the CERB through the EI system, as the government already does for those who receive the benefit through the CRA.
CRA applicants must only submit their SIN and contact information to obtain payments, along with an auto-certification that they are eligible for the emergency income support.
The CRA has said it will check applicants’ CERB eligibility at a later date, adding that those who don’t qualify will have to pay the money back.
Lior Samfiru, a Toronto-based employment lawyer, said the government should avoid imposing “unreasonable conditions” on some CERB applicants but not others.
“It’s not enough that the government pay the same amounts to everyone who qualifies for the CERB. The process must be the same as well,” he said.
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