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Liberals introduce bill with targeted pandemic aid for businesses, workers

Proposal: $300 per week to workers off the job because of a pandemic-related lockdown

The Trudeau Liberals have outlined their latest aid package for an economy recovering from COVID-19, proposing targeted support to severely affected businesses, locked-down workers, and extra weeks of benefits that expired just days ago.

The legislation introduced Wednesday in the House of Commons is one of four bills the government wants MPs to pass before the middle of December ahead of a scheduled winter break.

The Liberals are proposing to send $300 per week to workers who find themselves off the job because of a pandemic-related lockdown between now and spring 2022.

The bill would let cabinet decide which regions are considered in lockdown, defined as an order for businesses to close and workers to stay home for at least 14 straight days. It would block benefits to those who refuse to get vaccinated.

Payments would be retroactive to Oct. 24 when the Liberals let a pandemic-era benefit for the unemployed expire. The Canada Recovery Benefit’s siblings — sickness and caregiver benefits — would each get revived after expiring this past weekend with two more weeks of eligibility until May 7.

Wage and rent subsidies for businesses would be more generous and targeted over that same period to the still-hurting tourism, culture and hospitality sectors, as well as a long list of establishments such as movie theatres, arcades, casinos and gyms.

All would need to prove a deep and prolonged revenue loss to qualify.

Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, praised the extended list of eligible companies but said the high bar for revenue losses would leave out too many small businesses.

Similarly, Restaurants Canada asked the Liberals to lower the revenue-loss requirement over worries that many financially viable operations won’t survive the pandemic.

“We have been asking for months for sector-specific support and we just got a small portion of what we asked,” said Olivier Bourbeau, the association’s vice-president of federal and Quebec affairs.

The government also wants to extend to May a hiring credit for companies that add to their payrolls by boosting wages, rehiring laid-off workers, or new hires. The credit doesn’t require as deep a revenue loss to qualify.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said the economy is no longer in the same crisis that gripped the country at the onset of the pandemic when three million jobs were lost over March and April of 2020.

“I see this legislation as very much the last step in our COVID support programs. It is what I really hope and truly believe is the final pivot,” Freeland said.

Employment has since rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, although the ranks of Canada’s unemployed, including those who have been without a job for six months or more, remain higher than before COVID-19.

The mix of high unemployment and labour shortages helps explain why the government wants to target aid, hoping it jump-starts job hiring.

An analysis of survey data by job-posting site found more respondents were actively looking for work last month compared to July, August and September, and most described their search as “urgent.”

Senior economist Brendon Bernard wrote that urgent job searches are usually linked to financial difficulties, suggesting the findings may be an early warning of strain for households.

The minority Liberals estimate the new aid package would cost $7.4 billion, and the government needs parliamentary approval to spend the money.

The Conservatives and Bloc Québécois separately on Tuesday suggested they may support the bill — the former because benefits will go where needed most, the latter because it would mean help for cultural workers.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday his party wouldn’t support the bill unless the government reversed drops in income-tested benefits for low-income seniors and families who received aid last year, which boosted their overall income.

In a letter Wednesday, NDP finance critic Daniel Blaikie asked House Speaker Anthony Rota for an emergency debate to press the government on a plan to help “these financially vulnerable Canadians before they lose their home.”

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough told reporters later in the day that the government was searching for a solution, but didn’t want the fix to create extra inequities for those whose benefits were rolled back because they simply earned more without aid.

—Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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