Efforts to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 must be responsive to the needs of low-income Canadians who are disproportionately impacted by the virus, warn income-security advocates.
“We need to put a lens on the planning process that addresses the perspective of those who are most vulnerable or we are going to end up with a magnified problem,” says Dr. Gary Bloch, a family physician in Toronto and co-founder of the advocacy group Health Providers Against Poverty.
While Canadians adapt to new ways of working, travelling, and socializing in the wake of a global pandemic, many people are struggling to survive — and are at increased risk, says Bloch.
Research shows low income is associated with higher rates of chronic health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease, factors that increase susceptibility to COVID-19.
Canadians are advised to stay home when they are sick, purchase extra food and essential medications, and disinfect surfaces frequently. While these measures are within reach of middle-to-high-income families, they are often insurmountable obstacles for Canadians who live at or below the poverty line.
“The idea that someone relying on welfare or disability supports will have enough money to stock up on two weeks’ worth of food and basic supplies is often just not realistic,” says Laura Cattari, campaign co-ordinator at the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty.
School closings are amplifying the challenges for families, says Cattari. Families may rely on school lunch programs to supplement their children’s diet. For parents who do not have paid sick leave through their employment, child-care expenses can be prohibitive.
Low-paying jobs in sectors such as retail and hospitality cannot be done remotely, leaving many in a state of financial uncertainty.
Last week, the federal government announced an $82 billion aid package intended to provide Canadians with assistance to weather the COVID-19 storm.
Part of the package includes Emergency Care Benefits, which will provide up to $900 bi-weekly for up to 15 weeks to people who have been impacted by COVID-19 but do not qualify for Employment Insurance (EI), and who don’t have paid sick leave through their employment.
The federal government is also proposing an increase to the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) of $300 per child, beginning next May.
While this is a start, there are crucial gaps that amplify the risk for low-income individuals and families. Advocates are urging provincial and federal governments to consider other policy options to specifically support low-income Canadians.
“All of the weaknesses in our system that we have been warning about — like paid sick and emergency leave, enhanced protection for part-time and precarious status workers— they are coming to the surface with this crisis,” says Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Centre, an advocacy group in Toronto.
Measures aimed at easing eligibility for Employment Insurance still exclude people who are particularly vulnerable to layoffs. Part-time workers may not have sufficient insurable hours to qualify for EI benefits, says Ladd. She wants the federal government to lower the number of insurable hours needed to qualify for benefits.
There are also calls for enhanced supports to help people who may not be eligible because of their immigration status. But the proposed measures would be provided through existing benefit programs, including EI and CCB. People who do not have status in Canada will still not qualify for such benefits. The Income Tax Act mandates immigration status as a qualifying requirement to receive Canada Child Benefits.
“There are a lot of workers who are paid in cash, don’t have status in Canada and they are particularly vulnerable in a time when businesses are letting go of many people,” says Avvy Go, executive director of the Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto.
Go says the government should allow those with precarious immigration status to access the Emergency Care Benefit. She is also calling for amendments to EI legislation and the Income Tax Act to provide EI benefits and CCB benefits to all workers, irrespective of immigration status.
Provincially, the Ontario government has announced legislation to permit employees with COVID-19 to take as many job-protected sick days as needed.
But Ladd says this isn’t enough.
“They are talking about job-protected sick leave. There is no mention so far of it being paid and that is a huge gap,” she says.
A report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that just 14 per cent of leave taken by workers earning less than $16,000 a year was paid, while employees with the highest income had 74 per cent of leaves covered by employers.
For Ontarians who rely on Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), the situation is especially precarious, says Kyle Vose, co-chair of the ODSP Action Coalition.
“People on OW or ODSP are suffering right now because they are not getting enough money to survive,” says Vose.
Vose says the provincial government should place a moratorium on any benefit cancellations due to non-reporting of income. Anyone receiving OW or ODSP must report any income earned, which could impact their monthly entitlement.
But many recipients may not have internet or phone access at home, and rely on computers in public libraries to report to the Ministry of Community and Social Services online. Public libraries are now all closed, leaving people with few options. Ministry computer systems automatically withhold payment if income reports are not submitted.
“The system is set up so that if I were on ODSP still and I don’t report, I could lose benefits, my drug and dental card…. There are huge implications,” says Vose.
The administrative hurdles associated with social assistance programs can be onerous for both recipients and government, says Wayne Lewchuk, an economics professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.
“It would give [low-income Canadians] a floor below which they cannot fall, so they would have a guarantee of some income, hopefully enough to keep their household functioning,” he says.
Lewchuk says the pandemic reveals the societal costs of not addressing the needs of low-income Canadians.
“If we don’t have protections for a large segment of the working class that allows them to take the right steps to protect themselves and the community, then nobody is protected…. Viruses are not picky. They don’t look at your chequebook,” says Lewchuk.