Changes to emergency-relief program coming to expand eligibility, Trudeau says

OTTAWA — The federal government will soon change rules to let hundreds of thousands hard-hit workers access pandemic-related emergency relief, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised Monday as federal systems began processing about 1,000 applications a minute for the new benefit.

Applications opened at 6 a.m. eastern time and more than 532,000 out-of-work Canadians successfully applied for the $500-a-week Canada Emergency Response Benefit by late afternoon, with more expected into the evening.

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People with birthdays in the first three months of the year were asked to apply Monday, with the process opening more widely each day this week. Early indications were that the request was being followed for the most part, the Canada Revenue Agency said.

The agency issued a request for patience given the large demand for the 16-week benefit for workers who have lost all their income due to COVID-19 crisis.

The Liberals were warned last week by experts that the design of the $24-billion benefit program leaves out people whose hours have been slashed, but not eliminated entirely.

Also left out were students who haven't earned enough to qualify and people who were already seeking jobs before the pandemic's economic shock dried up their options.

Speaking outside his Ottawa residence, Trudeau promised more details soon on how the government intends to help those groups, and others who earn less now than if they were receiving the benefit, citing care workers for the elderly as an example.

"We're looking carefully at how we can increase their pay a little bit so that they do better off remaining at work rather than going off work and receiving the emergency-response benefit," he said.

"These are fine-tunings that we knew we would have to do because in any program you're trying to help as many people as possible, there will be exceptions that we have to fill and we're going to keep working to make sure we get this right and get everyone the help they need."

The tweaking began on Monday. Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos told a midday news conference that volunteer firefighters won't be disqualified from the emergency benefit for receiving honorary payments if they lost their day jobs due to COVID-19.

Over the last two-plus weeks, more than 2.5 million people have applied for employment insurance benefits — the same number the system usually sees in a year, Duclos noted.

All of them are to be transferred over to the emergency benefit, which will mean a bump in weekly pay for some low-income workers who have been laid off or furloughed — a situation that many didn't see happening earlier this year, according to a new report from the Bank of Canada.

The survey of consumer expectations released Monday said few thought they would lose their employment and many were ready to test the job market, expecting to quickly find something new. Households in mid-February expected their spending to rise faster than expectations for wage growth, which the bank said suggested consumers weren't becoming more cautious in their spending.

Results from the business-outlook survey suggested business sentiment had softened in most regions before the pandemic intensified. Much of that sentiment emanated from the country's oil-producing regions, where companies were generally less optimistic, pulling back on capital spending and hiring plans as they watched the price of oil fall.

Companies told the central bank they expected the economic shock from low oil prices to be worse than what hit the sector in 2015 and the 2008 economic crisis.

One reason, the bank said, was concern that financing was becoming harder to come by for companies that were also anticipating "a bottoming-out in the sector rather than a negative shock."

By mid-March, restaurants, hotels and other service industries had seen a collapse in sales. Businesses were either closed or expected to soon, and were "drastically laying off staff or reducing staff hours." Others, the bank noted, moved to food delivery and online sales to find new ways to earn money.

Manufacturers were anticipating temporary shutdowns and declining sales from challenged customers.

Grocery retailers and related transportation companies saw their sales reach "unprecedented levels" as workers were being told to stay at home.

Statistics Canada is scheduled to release March job numbers on Thursday, but it separately moved forward Monday on a new survey with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce to collect more recent data on how businesses are coping with COVID-19.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2020.

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