UPDATE: The federal government has addressed some of the concerns raised in this story. You can find information on the Canada Emergency Student Benefit here.
Ally Lecky was surprised when she learned she wasn’t covered by the Canadian government’s COVID-19 emergency benefit.
Last summer, the fourth-year Queen’s University physical education student worked two serving jobs. She made over $5,000, so she assumed she would qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). But because she hasn’t lost her current source of income — just her upcoming summer job prospects, with most restaurants and bars only serving take-out — she doesn’t qualify.
“[Students] are a financially vulnerable population,” Lecky told HuffPost Canada. “We are also the future of Canada and jobs and things like that. So I was surprised that we weren’t involved.”
Lecky is taking more courses in the fall. She was planning to get a physical education-related job regardless, since her course load would be lighter, but now worries that all of her peers will also be looking for jobs, so it’ll be harder to find one in her field.
“As a student population, I think we’re all a little concerned about how we’re going to pay for tuition … [and] just the cost of living,” Lecky said. “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to afford tuition come September.”
Applications for the CERB opened Monday. The $2,000 per month benefit is available to Canadians who stopped working because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this, most current students, as well as recent graduates who might have had prospective summer employment cancelled — but were not already working — do not qualify for the CERB.
The federal government suspended student loan repayment and interest accrual until Sept. 30, although graduating students already have a six-month grace period where interest doesn’t accrue before they have to start paying back their loans.
“This is an issue that we are very, very aware of,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Sunday. “From modifications to the Canada Summer Job program to looking at direct support for students, we know that we need to do more for young people as they come out of university and look for projects and ways of securing income this summer.
“That is something that we are very closely engaged on and should have more to say in the coming days.”
Students calling for income support from federal government
Alex Gold-Apel started writing letters to the federal government when he saw that students were left out of the response.
“I noticed that the way that it was framed made it seem like students and recent graduates who were having start dates delayed, who were having internships or summer jobs canceled or who generally just couldn’t find work, wouldn’t be receiving any sort of benefit,” he told HuffPost.
Gold-Apel is a masters student at the University of Toronto Munk School of Public Policy Global Affairs and president of the Munk Public Policy Student Association. While he has a full-time job lined up, he wanted to help his classmates and other students.
After posting his letters on Twitter, other students reached out to him. They formed a group called Don’t Forget Students and launched a petition that calls for the federal government to provide income assistance to all students and recent graduates.
The petition, started three days ago, has over 9,000 signatures.
Trudeau also said Sunday that students “looking for summer jobs they might not otherwise have” might be able to help out with agriculture-related jobs, as migrant workers may face challenges due to the pandemic.
But Gold-Apel noted that not all full-time students, or current graduates, would have the qualifications to work in the agriculture industry. Students can’t “learn how to work on a farm” overnight, he said.
“Those are jobs that have very fine and particular skills, and I think to suggest that all students and grads could be able to go do that kind of undermines those jobs,” he said.
“This is targeting everybody else who has been kind of left out...”
Gold-Apel said Trudeau also seemed to be focused on summer jobs, but noted that many students set to graduate in the spring are looking for full-time employment. He said a universal income for students and recent graduates would be the simplest way for the government to help students right now.
“This is targeting everybody else who has been kind of left out and oftentimes that is people with lower incomes or who are marginalized or who have been out of work,” he said.
What should students do?
Andrew Monkhouse, managing partner of Monkhouse Law in Toronto, said his firm has been getting lots of calls from students about the CERB.
His advice? Even if you don’t think you qualify under the current criteria, apply anyways.
While some students meet the criteria of having made over $5,000 in one year, they may not still be in that job — meaning they don’t necessarily meet the criteria of not working because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The definitions are going to come out. We obviously have a hope that [they’re] going to cover more people rather than less,” Monkhouse said. “But people shouldn’t look at it and say, ‘I might not meet the technical definition, I shouldn’t apply.’
“It’s better for them to apply up front and then work with the government, or others, on that.”
Monkhouse said he believes it’s likely that people who don’t currently meet the criteria of ceasing to work because of the pandemic will be able to access the CERB in the long term.
Even if students aren’t sure about their eligibility, they should be truthful in their application, Monkhouse added.
“We never recommend anyone be fraudulent, and we think that the government is going to be harsh on those who are,” he said. “But with that, it’s better to apply truthfully and provide all the information to [try to get] the assistance that people want, especially for students for whom a benefit like this will make a big difference.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified lawyer Andrew Monkhouse as Andrew Monkman.
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