The B.C. government has taken significant steps to help people cope with the financial hit from COVID-19, but more action is needed, say advocacy groups.
The Victoria Tenant Action Group called the $500-a-month rent supplement “a completely inadequate response to the challenges faced by renters” and said it “puts renters’ lives at risk.” Many renters were already struggling with high rents and now are seeing reduced income because of layoffs, cut hours and self-isolation.
When the government introduced the supplement for renters, which will be available for three or four months, Premier John Horgan said it was meant to complement the $2,000 and $1,000 monthly payments already offered by the federal and provincial governments respectively to people who have lost income due to the pandemic.
Another criticism came from the Retail Action Network, which advocates for workers.
The province failed workers by not changing the Employment Standards Act to provide paid sick days, the network said.
The network said workers should have a legal entitlement to 14 paid sick days without having to provide a sick note and should have their jobs protected for up to 52 weeks for medical leave.
The government’s decision to introduce unpaid sick leave means little has changed, the Retail Action Network said. The government made two changes to the Employment Standards Act last week, protecting workers’ jobs while they take unpaid leave for reasons related to COVID-19 and guaranteeing three days a year of unpaid, job-protected leave for people who are sick or injured.
“This lack of action is completely unacceptable and will lead to ongoing and dangerous presenteeism, whereby workers have to choose between going to work sick or a substantial loss of earnings.”
The network also wants the province to press the federal government to include all tips as income that can be considered in the determination of how much benefit someone should receive through employment insurance.
Concerns about income, disability assistance
Five groups advocating for people with disabilities, women and people living in poverty sent a letter to Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Shane Simpson asking that people on income or disability assistance be allowed to keep any benefits they are entitled to from the federal government. They fear any payments could be deducted from people’s provincial supports.
“Without changes, the much needed federal benefits could end up going to the provincial government instead of into the pockets of the workers who qualify for them,” they wrote.
A ministry official said the government will have more to say on the topic this week.
Off to a good start
Iglika Ivanova, a senior economist with the B.C. Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said she’s impressed with how quickly both the federal and provincial governments have responded to the crisis and expects they’ll keep updating and extending their plans.
“I do think this is just the beginning and it continues to be an evolving crisis,” Ivanova said, adding the governments’ response is a work in progress. “It’s a good start and I hope as more people point out where the gaps are we’ll get them fixed.”
Jurisdictions around the world have taken major steps to slow the spread of the virus and that has meant closing huge sectors of the economy.
On March 23 the province announced a $5-billion commitment to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
The plan offers supports for individuals and businesses, including increases to various benefits, tax deferrals and $1,000 a month for people whose jobs were affected by the response to the pandemic. The measures were aimed to complement aid from the federal government.
On Wednesday the provincial government presented its’ plans to help renters.
Ivanova said there’s been a steady stream of new details from both levels of government and they have already re-worked some policies to respond to criticisms. The federal government increased the wage subsidy available to businesses to 75 per cent from the previously announced 10 per cent, she noted.
“I am personally very encouraged to see governments be very responsive,” she said. “They’re writing policy from scratch in record-breaking time.”
Despite the efforts, gaps remain that need to be highlighted, she said.
So far nothing specific has been announced for people receiving social assistance, though the province has said more is coming for people who are living in poverty, she said.
The province should streamline the income assistance application process, allow people to keep more assets before they qualify for help and drop the requirement that they look for work, she said.
Ivanova noted that while the federal government has announced $2,000 a month to help workers affected financially by the crisis, regular provincial welfare cheques for individuals are just $760. It’s clear income assistance and disability assistance are inadequate, she said.
People surviving on income or disability assistance will face struggles as they try to self-isolate at a time when programs they depend on, like food banks in some communities, close due to the pandemic.
It would be difficult for someone on welfare with COVID-19 symptoms to afford two weeks worth of food to get them through extended self-isolation, Ivanova said.
“They already needed help and now they need help more than ever,” she said.
Ivanova agreed the province should not claw back any benefits people receive from the federal government. “Everyone’s struggling right now. It’s not the time to be nickel and diming people.”
She said the $500 a month for renters is a start and more will be needed if the pandemic continues much longer.
And she agreed with the Retail Action Network that the province should guarantee all employees have paid sick leave. “That’s true not just in the middle of a pandemic. The pandemic is exposing a big gap.”
Ivanova said she’s hopeful that commitment to act to close the gaps continues.
“It’s fascinating to watch them be so responsive to what the public need and what people are telling them is necessary in the crisis.”