Ending The CRB Now Is A Betrayal Of Workers

V.S. Wells

Oct. 24, 2021

from Passage

The Canada Response Benefit (CRB) will be dead by the time you read this. 

On Thursday, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced that many of the pandemic-related income and business support programs were going to end on October 23. That included the CRB for individuals, and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy for businesses.  

So as not to appear totally heartless, Freeland announced that CRB would be replaced with a new benefit. The Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit (CWLB) will pay out $300 per week until May to workers who can’t participate in profit-generating activities due to a provincial lockdown. The benefit will extend to workers who are ineligible for employment insurance. 

The decision is a sign that the government is abandoning its plans to spend heavily on a pandemic recovery, instead embracing austerity that targets the worst off in society first. But it’s also unclear who is happy about this move, beyond the ghouls National Post calls columnists. Even Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole asked for the benefit to only extend until  November 20, which would only have required an order of cabinet to extend. 

There are a number of problems with the new benefit. First, let’s look at the numbers. According to the federal government’s most recently available data, more than two million people total applied for the CRB. The most recent biweekly figures, for August 1 to 14, show more than 780,000 people accessed it. We don’t know what those numbers look like for October, but that’s likely hundreds of thousands of people whose benefits stopped with 72 hours’ warning.

Next, the CWLB benefit is apparently being introduced so provinces can, if necessary, introduce lockdowns to combat COVID-19. 

“I’m concerned that too many provincial governments or jurisdictions are choosing not to lock down at times when it might be necessary to do so,” Freeland said at the presser. But many provinces have been resistant to lockdowns, even when they seemed prudent — and even when out-of-work labourers would have received more money from the government. 

Right now, another wave of COVID-19 is slamming Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, and yet none of the governments have instituted lockdowns. How does giving workers less money make lockdowns more appealing?

Thirdly — what fantasy world is Freeland living in where $300 per week is sufficient to cover anything? Previously, the CRB was set up so that individuals who applied before July 18 received $1,000 every two weeks, pre-tax for 42 weeks, and then $600 every two weeks, pre-tax for the remaining 12 weeks of eligibility. Given that it has been less than 42 weeks since July 17, many applicants are likely still receiving $1,000. Most people accessing CRB will therefore go from regular support to literally nothing — and the $300 per week, in a provincial lockdown, is a clear downgrade.

Rent or mortgage, food, insurance, bills, prescriptions; staying alive in Canada is a goddamn expensive pastime. Even if a lockdown lowers your transit, entertainment costs or dining costs by virtue of being forced to stay home, there’s a base level of expense that most people have to pay. And the ones who don’t pay those costs — who own houses and cars outright — are also … more likely to be the ones whose jobs are unaffected by lockdowns. 

Mitchell Thompson argues for Canadian Dimension that this heartlessness is a feature, not a bug. Combined with tightening restrictions on EI eligibility, cutting CRB makes workers more precarious — and thus less powerful. “These and other cuts will restore employers’ confidence, confidence that they can find workers desperate enough to do any work at any wage,” Thompson writes.

Gone is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showing off the success of COVID-19 benefits at the beginning of his election campaign. The Liberals promised “having people’s backs all the way to and through the end of this crisis.” 

When you say you’ve got workers’ backs, it’s easier to stab them.

Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay angry,