04/10/2020 20:04 EDT | Updated 05/25/2020 21:14 EDT

Is The CERB Basically An Interest-Free Loan Anyone Can Apply For?

The answer seems to depend on who you ask.

UPDATE: The federal government has addressed some of the concerns raised in this story. You can find information on its new student benefit here and expanded CERB eligibility rules for self-employed Canadians here

OTTAWA — Like thousands of Canadians, René Baron is wondering whether to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit — quick, needed cash — even though he knows he doesn’t qualify for it.

The 38-year-old full-time student is finishing the third year of his bachelor’s degree in sociology and law at Concordia University in Montreal.

Last year, he spent the summer working at a restaurant, earning just under $5,000 — the cut-off to qualify for CERB. During the rest of the year, Baron lived off of a training allowance he received as an Indigenous student, but he can’t legally claim it as income.  

Rene Baron
René Baron is in a bind: the full-time student doesn't make enough to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, and he's too old and too late to apply to benefit from the Summer Jobs program. 

On Friday, Carla Qualtrough, the minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion, confirmed that the CERB is being sent to anyone who applies for it. 

When asked by HuffPost Canada whether Canadians who have lost income but don’t qualify for any government assistance should apply and use the money as an interest-free loan, Qualtrough sidestepped the query.

Although the CERB is intended for people who have lost all of their income because of COVID-19, Qualtrough said that, in the spirit of efficiency, the roll-out of the program was designed to pay people rapidly, then check whether they actually qualified. 

But in the “upcoming weeks or at tax time next year,” she said, the federal government will be reconciling accounts “to make sure people didn’t game the system or fraudulently claim something that wasn’t true.”

A senior Liberal official told HuffPost Canada that Canadians in need can apply for the CERB without any penalties.

There will be “no fines” for misuse, the official said. The Canada Revenue Agency will send notification to people who have either received too much money or were not eligible for the payments that they have a certain amount of time to pay the money back without penalty, he said.

Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Minister Carla Qualtrough speaks during a news conference in Ottawa on Thurs. March 26, 2020.

For Baron, that qualification isn’t very assuring.

“It still makes me feel uneasy to apply for it, because I know based on the criteria I shouldn’t apply for it,” he said by phone Friday.

Qualtrough, in fact, stated during the ministers’ press conference that the government was asking people to be honest, “to truthfully state if they stopped working because of COVID.”

“People are more concerned about being overly honest in Canada ... you know, our fraud levels just aren’t high,” she said, pointing to use of other government programs. 

Another MP, however, Toronto Liberal Adam Vaughan is encouraging people who don’t qualify for CERB to apply anyway, saying they should not “overreact and impose strict literal interpretations” on its qualifications.

Baron wonders whether he’s just sitting out money he should be claiming. He questions whether other groups, such as inmates from correctional facilities who have just been released from jail in Ontario to avoid the spread of COVID-19, will receive payments through the CERB. “Because how are you going to have income if you are just released from prison?” He said.

Watch: Here’s What You Should Have On Hand To Apply For The CERB. Story continues below. 

“I asked myself, Should I apply for this $2,000 knowing that I’m not eligible and that I will have to pay it back? Or should I wait to see if [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau makes an amendment to the eligibility tool and lets students apply? And even if he does, will I have to pay it back if I’m later found to be eligible, like in a month and I apply for it right now, would I still need to pay it back?

“There are a lot of questions about that that I have.”

Baron said he called the Canada Revenue Agency, which told him to call his band, because the federal government had announced funds for First Nations. Baron said his band told him they hadn’t received any money.

He called 1-800-O-Canada, where he was told they had no information about aid for students and he should “keep watching the news every day to find something out.”

NDP pushing for guaranteed basic income during pandemic

This week, Trudeau announced help for students through the Canada Summer Jobs program, but Baron is too old to qualify and the application was due back in February

“If you’re an adult going back to school, if you’re doing your master’s — I mean there are a lot of over-30 students, thousands of them. We don’t qualify for the summer jobs program.”

Baron said he has looked for jobs — grocery stores, pharmacies — and there is nothing out there. He’s also scared and doesn’t want to get sick.

He’s also frustrated with the government and doesn’t understand why money couldn’t just be sent to everybody.

The NDP has been pushing for a guaranteed basic income of $2,000 to be sent to every adult monthly during the crisis. Kim Moody, of Moodys Gartner Tax Law LLP, also told MPs on the Finance committee Thursday he believes money should have been sent out to everyone who needs it, and the government’s focus is placed on how to claw it back from those who don’t.

So far, the Liberals have announced more than nine different versions of programs affecting people and businesses impacted by COVID-19.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit page on the Canada.ca website advises applicants who may have received two payments in error on next steps. 

“[This] is such an extraordinary situation that you’re putting people in a position where they have to make a choice that they know is wrong,” Baron told HuffPost.

“I may apply for it and pay it back through my taxes in subsequent years because I have no other options right now. I have to pay my rent, I have to pay my bills like everybody else … There are no other options really.”

Qualtrough announced Friday that 5.62 million Canadians have already applied for the CERB and five million claims have been processed.

She noted, however, that some have received funds they shouldn’t have — two $2,000 payments — that were likely sent to those who, unsure which one they qualified for, applied for both employment insurance and the CERB.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine. We’re on it. We’re sorting it out,” she said. She urged people not to call Service Canada to flag the error, saying the government will be in touch to ask for the money back and ensure no one gets more than the $8,000 over four months they are entitled to.

That means, she added, “if you got an additional extra payment this month, you must budget accordingly.”

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