OTTAWA — The Liberals are proposing to increase the value of benefits for unemployed workers to $500 a week under newly tabled legislation that lands days before aid runs out for millions.
The proposal still needs parliamentary approval, but would bring the value of payments to the same level as under the soon-to-disappear Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
The same floor would be placed on employment insurance benefits for those eligible for the program, matching a demand from the federal New Democrats to not cut the value of benefits.
The Liberals first unveiled the package of three benefits and an expanded employment insurance program in August, days after Parliament was prorogued.
At the time, the floor on benefits was set at $400 per week for those out of work.
The country's finance and employment ministers downplayed any political calculations in the language of the bill introduced in the House of Commons on Thursday, which requires some opposition support for it to become law.
"We really were trying to be flexible from the beginning. We landed here because this is where the country is now in terms of the support workers need," Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said.
But the bill does more than just reshape aid for individuals who aren't able to work, either because they don't have a job, can't work because they are ill or have to stay home to take care of a child or family member due to pandemic-related reasons.
It also includes $1.5 billion to send to provinces for training programs as a first tranche of money linked to the government's throne speech promise to help Canadians improve or acquire skills to help them in a shifting labour market.
And it also asks Parliament to give the government emergency spending powers until the end of the year on what Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said were specific measures to combat the pandemic, such as vaccines.
The legislation gives a breakdown of those measures and spending limits, but "doesn't cover every single thing that we may need to do in the fall," Freeland said. The government expects to have to come back to Parliament for spending approval on additional programs as the need arises, she said.
The CERB has paid out some $78 billion to nearly 8.8 million people since its introduction at the onset of the pandemic, covering those who are and are not eligible for employment insurance. The government pledged to modernize EI in its throne speech Wednesday and effectively provide it to those who don't currently qualify.
The government estimates that about 2.8 million people receiving CERB payments will move on to EI in the coming days, and Qualtrough said she was confident it would be a smooth transition for the decades-old EI system.
She also said the replacement benefit for workers, dubbed the Canada Recovery Benefit, struck a better balance for businesses by removing disincentives to work by letting workers keep some payments as their earnings rise.
Qualtrough stressed the need to approve the bill quickly to maintain support to those who will need the aid over the coming months.
"We have been working with the other parties all along through this process, so I stress urgency because we're now rolling up our sleeves to get this past the finish line," Qualtrough said.
"We're not at the starting line here. We are definitely way, way, way closer to the finish line."
Conservative employment critic Peter Kent called it unacceptable for the Liberals to try ramming through the legislation when they could have gotten the ball rolling before prorogation, knowing the CERB was set to end.
"Millions of Canadians are still unemployed and eager to return to work. Businesses want to reopen and welcome back staff and customers," he said in a statement.
"Instead of showing leadership and presenting Canadians with a clear path forward through the pandemic, the Trudeau Liberals continue to let Canadians down."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2020.