Facing fears workers won’t work, P.E.I. asks Ottawa to change COVID benefits programs – CBC online


P.E.I. Premier Dennis King is calling for changes to the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) to provide incentives to get people back in the labour force.

He’s also asked Ottawa for changes to the federal emergency aid program for students, the Canada emergency student benefit (CESB), so it funds positions for student employment, instead of just paying them to stay at home.

King said he’s raised the issues in calls with the prime minister, along with general concerns that programs meant to help Canadians who find themselves out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic are providing incentives for them to stay out of the workforce.

On Friday, P.E.I. began on the first phase of its plan to ease back COVID-related restrictions and restart the provincial economy.

“As businesses come back on stream … there certainly is a fear out there that if people are being paid not to work, it’s going to be difficult for those businesses to attract people they would normally be able to attract,” said King.

Programs should help build labour force

The CERB provides $2,000 per month to eligible Canadians who’ve lost their jobs or had hours reduced. The CESB provides $1,250 per month to students without work.

King said he’s asked the prime minister to work with the provinces “to tailor programs so that we can actually be incentivizing people to get to work in the labour force, because for our economy to kick back into gear in any way, shape or form we’re going to need an active labour force.”

With regards to the student program, King said he would rather see the feds “working with the private sector, with NGOs and even with provincial governments so that we could be putting that money in the hands of students, but at the same time having students fill … many of the jobs that they used to fill in the past.”

All three of P.E.I.’s primary industries — farming, fishing and tourism — are normally gearing up this time of year. While tourism is expected to be hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions on travel, a delayed spring lobster season will go ahead in May. There are concerns emergency benefits from Ottawa are making it harder to attract workers. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

He said there’s no question students need the money, “but we think there’s a way for us to thread that fine needle a little bit,” using the money to help address the needs of the labour market.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see people paid to stay home while we have vacancies for those who are trying to get their businesses off the ground in difficult circumstances.”

In cases where there is no available work, King said government should continue to provide benefits.

King is concerned Islanders who’ve been collecting CERB won’t have enough hours to qualify for EI benefits this winter. (Ken Linton/CBC)

King said at some point there will have to be a reckoning within federal assistance programs to recognize those collecting emergency benefits have not been logging insurable hours under employment insurance, and thus may not qualify for EI benefits when they would normally draw them.

King said whatever program follows CERB, which provides a maximum of 16 weeks of benefits, should include incentives to get people working “so that individuals are able to get into work, into the labour force to get those EI insurable earnings that they’re going to need come late fall or winter.”

COVID benefits adding to business challenges, says recruiter

Blake Doyle, who works with local recruitment agency Island Recruiting, said while the emergency benefits programs were meant “to support people through this unprecedented time,” one of the consequences has been “an inducement to resist re-entry into the labour market.”

Blake Doyle of Island Recruiting says there are risks for people returning to work during the pandemic which some might not be willing to take. (Laura Chapin/CBC)

He said businesses are already struggling with reduced demand for their products, or trying to pay the rent.

“Now they’re having difficulty finding labour.”

Doyle said it’s not just the money acting as an inducement to keep people out of the labour force, however, as there’s also concern among potential workers that going back to work could put them at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Not worth the risk?

Given that, Doyle said it’s easy to see how some potential workers are comparing the wages on offer at work versus the available benefits, and deciding to stay home.

“We’ve seen it in the agricultural sector, we’ve seen it in the seafood processing sector. I think you’ll see it soon in the service sector as these organizations open up,” said Doyle.

I don’t think anyone wants to see people paid to stay home while we have vacancies for those who are trying to get their businesses off the ground in difficult circumstances.— P.E.I. Premier Dennis King

“Unless you’re getting a lot of tips, and you’re not probably going to this season, what’s the benefit to expose yourself to what still might be an active virus in the economy, versus enjoying some of these benefits?”

Doyle also noted that for Islanders keen to get back to work, there is no “robust market” of jobs for them to return to, which is why Ottawa began rolling out benefits like CERB in the first place.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, job listings on P.E.I. were down 68 per cent in the week of April 6 compared to the first week of March.

Carl Pursey, with the P.E.I. Federation of Labour, said if there’s work available, Islanders who can do it shouldn’t be at home collecting CERB.

“These benefits were just to get people by until the work was available,” Pursey said.

“Hopefully they can return to the jobs that they were in, and if not, if there’s other work there, we’ll have to look at a way of matching people to the jobs.”