Members of Parliament are being asked to expedite the study and passage of the government's latest COVID-19 benefit legislation, a new bill that includes New Democrat-negotiated changes to expand paid sick leave for Canadians who are vulnerable due to the pandemic and don't have access to coverage through their employer.
The focus of this latest emergency aid bill is the trio of new COVID-19 benefits designed to fill gaps left by the end of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program, including a $500 per week payment for self-employed, gig, or contract workers who don't qualify for the newly modified Employment Insurance plan, as well as a form of paid sick leave and a caretaker benefit for Canadians who have to stay home to take care of someone due to COVID-19.
The changes to the "Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit," are around eligibility, but the amount and duration remains the same: $500 a week, for up to two weeks anytime in the next year. Though it is possible the timeframe could be extended through regulation later on if necessary.
What was initially going to be a benefit to make it easier for people to stay home from work when they are sick or have to self-isolate due to COVID-19 is now being made available to eligible Canadians who have or might have contracted COVID-19, have underlying conditions or another illness that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, or have isolated themselves due to COVID-19 on the advice of their employer or medical expert.
"No worker should have to make the impossible choice," said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh following the introduction of what's been titled Bill C-4.
"What we’ve included broadens it out to those who are vulnerable to COVID-19," Singh said, explaining how his caucus has done the math on how the change would mean millions rather than thousands would be eligible. "It would include someone who has a condition that they are immuno-suppressed; they can take paid sick leave if their condition is flaring up or if they’re in a situation where they need to take some time off. It would also include any respiratory illness."
The changed wording will help millions of Canadians, and this policy update will see the Liberals secure the NDP's backing to pass the suite of new benefits, as well as lock in their support when it comes to the key confidence vote on the throne speech coming in the days ahead.
The changes were introduced in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, with the Liberals opting to table a new bill entirely that encompasses the changed benefit language, rather than opting to try to advance amendments to a pre-tabled bill, known as C-2.
The wording and criteria for the two other benefits remain unchanged.
The $500-a-week “Canada Recovery Benefit” is for CERB recipients who are not eligible for Employment Insurance, such as self-employed, gig or contract workers. In order to qualify for this program, Canadians must be looking for work and had stopped working or had their income reduced by 50 per cent or more due to COVID-19, but are still making some money on their own.
The “Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit” is to help in the instances when someone needs to stay home to care for a loved one because schools, daycares, or other care facilities are closed due to the pandemic. This program offers up to 26 weeks per household, with just one adult per household able to claim the program at a time, and provides $500 a week.
The Liberals are also looking for parliamentary approval to allow the federal government powers to spend “all money required” to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, until Dec. 30.
"This legislation will provide ongoing support for Canada and Canadians, as we fight the second wave of the coronavirus. That is why we are asking every member of Parliament to work with us," said Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland last Thursday when the initial legislation was tabled.
With the final application period for CERB closing over the weekend, and the transition of the majority of CERB recipients onto a revamped EI program underway, the clock is ticking to get these new supports up and running so that those who need them can apply to get access to the federal funding as early as next week.
In an effort to pass these newly modified benefit programs, the Liberals advanced a motion on Monday morning seeking MPs' approval to speed up the study and passage of the bill.
"It’s definitely not a time to play political games. Canadians need our help now. This is exactly what the motion is meant to accomplish: quick action… Canadians need members of this House to recognize the urgency of this situation and to work together. They’re watching us," said Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez in asking his opposition colleagues to support the accelerated study.
During debate on the motion, the Liberals faced criticism from the opposition parties about the tight timeline to see the new measures passed without leaving millions of Canadians benefit-less amid a second wave of the pandemic, citing the summer prorogation of Parliament as the reason for the rush now.
After the Conservatives proposed to sit on Sunday to add extra time to hear from a suite of cabinet ministers and to debate the new benefit proposals was not supported, the caucus is concerned about the limited window for debate being offered.
They've suggested an amendment to the motion to speed up passing the bill, which asks for Freeland, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough, and other members of cabinet to face extended questioning. The Conservatives also want to be given an opportunity to propose amendments to the bill.
If the Tory amendment is supported, the bill will be set to pass on Wednesday, whereas if the Liberal motion to fast-track the study passes, the bill could be off to the Senate once the agreed-upon hours of debate expire, Tuesday evening at the earliest.
"When we have $50 billion in front of us and letting parliamentarians talk about it only for four and a half hours? This is big joke," said Conservative House Leader Gerard Deltell.