UPDATE: The federal government has addressed some of the concerns raised in this story. You can find information on its expanded CERB eligibility rules for self-employed Canadians here.
OTTAWA — Keith Geisler doesn’t know how he’s going to pay his bills.
The Saskatoon trucker’s income has dropped 65 to 70 per cent since mid-March, but his bills keep piling up.
“There’s rent to pay at home, and there is groceries to buy, and that’s going to come to an end pretty soon,” Geisler told HuffPost Canada by phone from Red Deer, Alta. “There isn’t enough to cover everything.”
What’s left of his income can barely cover the $4,000 monthly payments on his truck and trailer.
Geisler is considered an essential worker, but he doesn’t haul food, fertilizer or medical supply. He carries equipment, building supplies, and steel for manufacturing. And demand has dropped.
“People aren’t going to a store and buying building supplies or buying equipment... steel and manufacturing has dropped right off too. So it has cut my revenue right down,” he said.
The 56-year-old has been driving semis since he was 25. Ten years ago, he took a break to battle non-Hodgkin lymphoma and he’s been cancer free for three years, but his immune system remains compromised.
Still with the ability to work, and payments due every month to private lenders, and his income based on a percentage of his loads, Geisler hits the road.
Two months ago, he drove through the Prairies non-stop, picking up freight. But these days, he spends most of his time waiting.
Geisler is one of tens of thousands of self-employed Canadians still left out from the more than $100 billion in federal spending aimed at offsetting the financial impact of mandated shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t qualify for nothing,” he told HuffPost.
There are 2.9 million self-employed Canadians — 15 per cent of the workforce, according to Statistics Canada. And many are in a pickle.
Watch: Trudeau unveils rent relief program for small businesses
Despite his substantial fixed costs, Geisler earns too much money — more than $1,000 a month — to qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). He doesn’t have any employees on payroll so he doesn’t qualify for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, a 75 per cent wage subsidy, or Canadian Emergency Business Account (CEBA), an interest-free loan of up to $40,000 that, if repaid before Dec. 31, 2022, will cost him only $30,000 with $10,000 forgiven.
Ideally, Geisler would like to qualify for CEBA so he can use the loan to ensure he doesn’t lose his truck. If not the loan, then perhaps, he said, a more generous CERB could help offset his expenses.
He tried asking the government of Saskatchewan for help, but, he said, he was told that because he’s an essential worker he doesn’t qualify for the province’s $5,000 Small Business Emergency Payment Program.
“I’m frustrated and angry,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve tried for government programs and they always say I don’t qualify, or you don’t have this, or you don’t have that for the program. And now this comes out. It’s — what’s happened now, it’s something I didn’t create. It’s something that I didn’t get into a bind in life doing or working, this is something that was brought on by — it’s a worldwide thing that nobody can control. And I think the government should be helping everybody, so that everybody has, you know, food on the table and can pay their bills.”
That’s what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised repeatedly this week, telling Canadians the government was focused on ensuring that no one who needs help gets left behind.
“Right now, our focus is on making sure we’re giving all the help we need during this crisis to the provinces, and, specifically, to Canadians right across the country,” he said on Friday.
But Geisler isn’t the only individual falling through the cracks. Frank, a self-employed hairdresser in Mississauga, Ont., who asked that his last name be withheld over privacy concerns, said he pays $1,850 a month to rent a chair from a salon. Since the parlour closed on March 21, Frank has been collecting the CERB, for which he said he is grateful, but without access to CEBA, he worries he’ll lose the ability to practice his trade.
“I am concerned that without access to the loan, I will not be able to continue to practice my trade, which is also further complicated with social distancing that will definitely continue for a long time,” he said.
Although Frank likes what “Trudeau is doing,” he said, “I think it would have been easier if he had just issued everybody a cheque, that would be an easier way of doing things.”
When asked Thursday by HuffPost about the government’s policy choices and the fact many small business owners are still left out in the cold, Trudeau said the government chose to target support to those who need it most first.
The CERB, initially designed to help those who had lost all their income because of COVID-19 or because they were forced to care for a loved one, has delivered benefits to more than eight million Canadians, the prime minister noted. (As of Friday evening, 9.51 million applications worth $22.4 billion had been processed.)
“But every step of the way, we’ve said we will continue to expand. We will continue to fill gaps. We never expected that we’d get it perfect from day one,” Trudeau said.
The program has since been expanded to Canadians earning some income — although no more than $1,000 a month — and a new version has been extended to students.
“We couldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Trudeau said. “We needed to get things out as best we could, as quickly as we could, to help as many people as possible, and then we continue every day to make further announcements that fill gaps that explain how we’re going to help those people who aren’t hit by the broad measures there to help.
“We will continue to work on making sure that everyone who needs help gets it.”
The prime minister may argue that the CERB was the fastest way to get money to those who need it most, but some, even within his caucus, believe funds should have been extended to those who have lost income or lost the ability to earn income.
So far the Liberal government has announced more than 50 different measures to help individuals and businesses weather the crisis.
On Friday, Trudeau announced a measure that could help many small businesses.
Ottawa and provincial governments will subsidize commercial rents under $50,000 a month, by 75 per cent. Businesses must show a 70 per cent drop in revenue since the pandemic began, and landlords must be willing to apply to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and absorb 25 per cent of the costs for rents due in April, May and June.
Glenn Harrington, a wood furniture maker in Toronto, who spoke to HuffPost last week about the difficulties his business faces had hoped for an announcement on expanding CEBA but was encouraged by Friday’s measures.
“That’s great news! I have been critical on CEBA, but think this is very fair to all,” Harrington told HuffPost.
After reading the fine print — the program applies only to landlords who hold mortgages on their properties — Harrington was less excited.
“I rent from the City of Toronto, so I would think they have no mortgage. I wonder where I will land on this one,” he said, wondering how he’ll pay his $5,000 monthly rent.
Like Harrington, Dan Mills would have liked to see the CEBA program expanded to help him pay his bills. The Courtenay, B.C., self-employed contractor told HuffPost last week that his family will be leaning on their teenage son, who is receiving CERB’s $2,000 monthly payments, to help make ends meet. (The CERB is available to those over 15 years of age who have had $5,000 in income the previous year and have lost all of their income because of COVID-19).
Bookkeeper Patricia Riley has no children to help offset her bills. She said she’s seen a 60 to 70 per cent drop in her revenue, but because she earns more than $1,000 a month, she doesn’t qualify for any programs.
“It’s a really blatant gap in the funding that’s been available,” she said by phone. “They keep adding stuff, but we still seem to not be on the radar for some reason.”
Riley questions why employees — including CEOs — who have no overhead are eligible for up to $3,388 a month through the wage subsidy program while sole proprietors are left out.
“Today, the students are getting something, OK. I’m still waiting for me,” she said Wednesday after the announcement of the government’s $9-billion program offering post-secondary students $1,250 a month.
Although Riley works from home and said she’ll be living off the money she had saved for her HST and income taxes, she questions the fairness of the government’s choices.
In order to qualify for any additional assistance, she said, she would have to leave some of her clients in a lurch.
“I just want to perhaps have what everyone else has, some income that they can rely on,” she said. A subsidy, or an interest-free loan “is better than a kick in the head,” she added.
“Anything would be helpful. We have nothing. Nothing.”
Geisler thinks self-employed Canadians were left out of federal planning on purpose. “In my opinion, big business runs the country. The little guy doesn’t. So they want to make sure that those businesses don’t go down.”
At the truck stops, Geisler said he and the other drivers discuss the costs of the virus and the economic shut down.
“There are guys that are going to go down over this, lose their trucks and stuff all over it. They’re not going to be able to make it.”
He worries he’s not going to make it either. “If it doesn’t pick up, I’ve probably got enough till the end of June, and that’d be it.”
He tried diversifying his loads, he said, but no one is hiring.
While he drives, Geisler thinks about what awaits him at the other end. Will there be a load, or will he have to sit for a couple of days or even a week to get one?
“It’s not like you go to someplace and you can unload and reload and go, like it was. You go someplace, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait, sometimes one day, and sometimes two days, and then maybe the third day you might get something, or it doesn’t go. The rates are down now, because there are so many trucks sitting around. There is a lot of competition now.
‘It’s a lonely road now’
“And then, you know, I think about when I go home, I’m not really going home, that I can’t see anybody, because I have to keep away from everybody when I’m at home also.”
Geisler’s girlfriend lives 20 minutes from his home in Saskatoon, but he hasn’t seen her since early March. He doesn’t want to risk getting her sick.
“It’s hard to go home and not being able to go see your girlfriend, or go see your wife — some people are married. It’s tough,” he said.
Mentally, emotionally, financially.
“It’s a lonely road now, as to what it was.”