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THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON NATIONAL FINANCE

EVIDENCE


OTTAWA, Monday, June 22, 2020

The Standing Senate Committee on National Finance met by videoconference this day at 11 a.m. [ET] to study: a) certain elements of Bill C-13, An Act respecting certain measures in response to COVID-19; b) the provisions and operations of Bill C-14, A second Act respecting measures in response to COVID-19; and, c) the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences; and, in camera, to study the Supplementary Estimates (A) for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2021.

Senator Percy Mockler (Chair) in the chair.

[English]

The Chair: Honourable senators, before we begin, I would like to remind senators and witnesses to please keep your microphones muted at all times unless recognized by name by the chair.

We will begin with the official portion of our meeting. My name is Percy Mockler, a senator from New Brunswick and chair of the committee. I would like to introduce the members of the committee who are participating in this meeting: Senator Forest, deputy chair; Senator Richards, steering committee member; Senator Boehm; Senator Dagenais; Senator Deacon (Ontario); Senator Duncan; Senator Galvez; Senator Harder; Senator Klyne; Senator Loffreda; Senator Marshall; Senator Smith; and also our ex officio members, Senator Gold and Senator Martin. I will take this opportunity to also welcome Senator Pate, a regular participant.

[Translation]

Welcome, everyone, and welcome to all the Canadians watching us. Today, our committee is continuing its study on certain elements of Bill C-13, the provisions and operations of Bill C-14, and the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences. This study was referred to the committee by the Senate of Canada on April 11.

[English]

No doubt, our National Finance Committee has common denominators, namely, transparency, accountability, predictability and reliability.

Today, for our first panel, we welcome the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, the Honourable Carla Qualtrough. Minister, thank you again for your availability and participation in our committee. We appreciate it.

The minister is joining us by teleconference and will count on a group of senior officials from her department to answer questions, if need be. Welcome to all of you and thank you for being here.

Minister, I am informed that you have some comments. Please make your comments, and then we will follow up with questions from the senators.

Hon. Carla Qualtrough, P.C., M.P., Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion: Thank you, Mr. Chair. I’m very pleased to be able to join you all today to speak to the emergency measures we have taken under my portfolio to support Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. I appreciate being able to call in as the accessibility features with Zoom are quite challenging, and I find it much easier to participate over the phone.

Accompanying me today are Deputy Minister Graham Flack, Associate Deputy Minister Benoît Robidoux and CFO Mark Perlman.

[Translation]

I’d like to thank the committee for studying our response to the pandemic. Your attention is very much appreciated.

Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, I’m sure you know that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit has evolved over time, but let me take you back to March 2020 so I can explain what measures Employment and Social Development Canada has taken to support Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic.

[English]

As Canada’s economy closed — almost overnight — it quickly became clear that our regular safety net, that being Employment Insurance, would not be able to handle the volume of people who were seeing a complete halt in their hours or losing their jobs. Our government acted immediately. Parliament passed the Canada Emergency Response Benefit Act and created the CERB. For eligible workers, the benefit has been providing temporary income support of $500 a week for up to 16 weeks. To give you a sense of the scope of the need, close to 8 million workers have been paid more than $40 billion in benefits.

Since the beginning of this crisis, our government has been focused on providing Canadians with the support they need as we all worked together to contain the spread of the virus and to keep Canadians safe.

[Translation]

The initial benefit period for the CERB was scheduled to end in early July, but on June 16, the Government of Canada announced that it would be extended by eight weeks at the current rate of $500 a week.

We know that Canadians are eager to get back to work and that employers are doing everything they can to make sure their workers are safe. We urge anyone who’s looking for work to visit the Job Bank, which is a national service that can help them find a job.

[English]

For those unable to work or find work, the CERB will now continue to be available from March 15 to October 3, 2020. In that time period, workers now have up to 24 weeks of the CERB available to them. We know that this will go a long way for Canadians who simply don’t have a job to return to, who have caregiving responsibilities and for workers and industries that haven’t yet reopened. Extending the CERB will give workers greater confidence that they will continue to get the support they need as they face ongoing disruptions to their work and home situations due to COVID-19.

I’ll now take a moment to speak to the disability inclusion part of my portfolio. We recognize that some groups are significantly and disproportionately impacted by this pandemic. In the spirit of “Nothing Without Us” and the Accessible Canada Act and to support Canadians with disabilities, we established the COVID-19 Disability Advisory Group. This group has been offering important advice to the government on the real-time, lived experiences of people with disabilities during this crisis. Thanks in part to this group’s advice, we recognized that persons with disabilities needed extra financial support during this crisis. On June 5, the Prime Minister announced that those who claim the disability tax credit will receive a one-time payment of $600.

I want to thank Senator Moncion, who was to be the sponsor of this bill in the Senate. Unfortunately, when legislation was presented in the house to help facilitate information-sharing between Canada Revenue Agency and ESDC to deliver this benefit, politics got in the way. But we’re working very hard to find another solution to deliver this important support to people with disabilities, and I’m very committed to making this happen.

[Translation]

Mr. Chair, seniors are one of the most vulnerable groups to be affected by this pandemic. The current situation is causing seniors a great deal of financial stress and anxiety. That’s why the government has taken steps to protect their financial security during these uncertain times.

[English]

Seniors who have stopped working because of COVID-19 are eligible for the CERB. They can collect the CERB even if they receive the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security or the Guaranteed Income Supplement, without interruption to these benefits. And to help seniors cover increased costs caused by COVID-19, seniors eligible for the OAS will receive a one-time, tax-free payment of $300, with an additional $200 for seniors eligible for the GIS.

Now a word about temporary foreign workers: First, I want to emphasize that our government remains committed to protecting temporary foreign workers through this pandemic. I’m so saddened, and heartbroken actually, to hear about workers who have become ill or passed away due to COVID-19. My thoughts are with them and their families.

While we have taken important steps over the course of this pandemic, we recognize there is more to do to protect temporary foreign workers in this country and remain committed to looking at additional steps our government can take in order to do so.

We are continuing to work with provinces and territories, whom we share a responsibility with on this, as well as partner countries, employer associations, worker support organizations and other stakeholders to address these serious concerns and ensure the safety and well-being of all workers in Canada. We are also working directly with the Mexican government. This includes creating a contact group of representatives from relevant departments in both countries to be able to respond immediately as situations arise. We are also increasing the number of inspections, increasing proactive outreach to workers and enhancing our compliance measures. Of course, we are happy to provide more information on this particularly serious file at your request.

[Translation]

Now let me say a word about students and youth.

We know this is an especially tough time for young people, students and recent graduates, because many of them are not eligible for the CERB. That’s why, on April 22, we announced that we would be allocating $9 billion in comprehensive support for post-secondary students and recent graduates.

[English]

Parliament passed An Act respecting Canada emergency student benefits on April 29 that enabled the four-month Canada Emergency Student Benefit, or the CESB. Students who are not receiving the CERB could be eligible to receive an additional $1,250 per month between May and August. Eligible students with permanent disabilities and those with dependents under the age of 12 will receive an additional $750 per month.

Our measures don’t just end with the CESB. We allocated $80 million to the Student Work Placement Program to help up to 20,000 post-secondary students find internships and employment-related experiences in their field of study. We’re also investing $153.7 million in the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy, which will create up to 6,000 new jobs for young people in areas of high demand such as health and essential services. We will also expand the eligibility criteria for the Canada Student Loans Program for September and double the amount of Canada Student Grants. These new measures are in addition to those already implemented to suspend repayment of student and apprenticeship loans and applicable interest for six months.

[Translation]

We know that many young Canadians are hoping to get a job this summer and are looking for safe and secure employment opportunities. That’s why we’ve made temporary changes to the Canada Summer Jobs program to resolve issues that young people and employers were running into.

We increased the wage subsidy, expanded eligibility and provided more flexibility for employers.

[English]

Mr. Chair, these combined measures for workers, students, youth and persons with disabilities have been necessary to support Canadians during this crisis and have helped stabilize the economy. As we begin to safely restart our economy, our government will continue to be there to adapt and respond to the needs of Canadian workers as they begin to head back to work and re-enter the workforce.

I’ll stop there, and I would love to hear your questions. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you, minister. We will now proceed to questions, and I would like to remind all senators that you will have a maximum of three minutes each. Therefore, please ask your questions directly. To the witnesses, please respond concisely. Our clerk will make a hand signal to show that the time is over.

Senator Marshall: Welcome, minister, to you and your officials.

Thank you for your opening remarks where you outlined some of the programs, but at the end there, you did say that the objective now is to reopen the economy. I know there are billions of dollars being spent so far, but as I indicated, the emphasis now is on transitioning people back into the workforce. I’m from Newfoundland and Labrador, and I can see it happening at home. I’m in Ottawa this week, and I can see it happening.

What people are saying to me is that government wants the economy reopened. They want the private sector back to work. They want small businesses back to work. They want those organizations to do the heavy lifting, but the government has closed down Parliament. People want to see their parliamentarians in action. They want to see us, but most of us will end up going home, and we expect all these businesses to open and work through reopening the economy. They feel that government is being disingenuous. It is the old philosophy of, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Would you care to comment on that?

Ms. Qualtrough: Thank you, senator, for your question. I appreciate that perspective absolutely.

I know we have worked very hard to try to find a balance in being available, being accountable, being transparent and at the same time following the advice of public health officials to social distance and not necessarily have a bunch of people travelling from their home communities to Ottawa. The solution arrived at amongst all the parties was the current format of regular meetings of what we call the COVID committee, as you know, but basically includes all 338 MPs.

I can tell you I have answered hundreds of questions in very straightforward, two-and-a-half-hour meetings, four times a week, for the past number of weeks, in an attempt to get information out to Canadians and to parliamentarians. I work very closely with my critics. We answer all that we possibly can. But we strongly believe this is a better format for —

Maxime Fortin, Clerk of the Committee: Minister, sorry. I have to ask you to pause. The interpreters here are not able to interpret. The quality of the audio is not good enough on our end.

Senator Marshall: I could comment on the minister’s comment just to say that I realize this is happening as you have said. That work is being done. That doesn’t replace the ability of people to see their parliamentarians actually on the floor of the House. It can be done. You can have a variety of members from different parties. I know the Senate is sitting today. It could be done.

[Technical difficulties]

[Translation]

Senator Forest: Thank you, minister, and thank you to the members of your department.

My question is about seasonal workers. I’m from the Lower St. Lawrence and Gaspé region, which has a lot of seasonal workers in seasonal industries, like hospitality, fishing and agriculture.

The government extended the CERB to include seasonal workers who have exhausted their regular EI benefits and can’t get a regular seasonal job because of COVID-19. That was the right thing to do.

However, this may just have put off the problem, because some workers won’t have accumulated the minimum number of hours needed to qualify for EI by the fall. What’s the plan for helping workers in seasonal industries who won’t qualify for EI, so they can get through the winter?

Ms. Qualtrough: Thank you, senator. This is an issue I’m very concerned about, as it affects not only seasonal workers, but also women who are on maternity leave. A lot of people won’t be able to work enough hours to qualify for EI in September. We’re working on finding a solution as we speak. Sometime in the next few weeks, we’ll announce what we’re going to do. We certainly don’t want to neglect these people.

We’re working very hard to fix this problem. Maybe Mr. Flack has something to add.

Senator Forest: Thank you, minister.

Graham Flack, Deputy Minister, Employment and Social Development Canada: The government has already announced a change for those who haven’t accumulated enough hours. People whose eligibility for benefits ended on December 29 of last year will now be eligible.

Last week, the government also announced that it would add two four-week periods for the CERB. Seasonal workers will be eligible.

As the minister said, we’re working very hard to find solutions for people who won’t have accumulated enough hours for the next season.

Ms. Qualtrough: I’d like to add that we’ve already made a decision about fishers.

[Technical difficulties]

[English]

The Chair: Let us take five minutes to try to find a solution.

(The committee suspended.)


(The committee resumed.)

Senator Richards: Thank you, minister, for being here today. My question is quick and simple. I don’t know if there’s a simple answer. The national unemployment average is now at 19%. I imagine that in New Brunswick, where I come from, it’s far higher than that. Do you have any way to predict the level of unemployment in the next few months and how high it might go? How hard will it be to restart the engine of the economy with so many people out of work? I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that. Thank you.

Ms. Qualtrough: Thank you, senator.

In May, the national unemployment rate was 13.7%. But, as you indicated, that doesn’t really tell the whole story because it doesn’t capture people who have been furloughed maybe or their hours have been reduced to nothing. It’s hard to predict what will happen in the next months. We’re watching it closely. We’re trying to reorient our programs to encourage back to work, to support people as they go back to work. But there’s no real way beyond tracking, as we do monthly, to predict with any amount of certainty right now as we don’t know which sectors will reopen, in what order, and how many workers will have jobs to go back to. But, quite frankly, it is not a rosy picture, and we want to make sure we continue to support people.

Senator Richards: Thank you very much.

Senator Harder: Thank you, minister. Let me begin by simply offering my thanks and congratulations to you and your department. I think when the history of this whole series of measures is taken, the systems and policy rethink at ESDC will be the story in many ways.

I want to focus a little on gaps. You mentioned earlier the seasonal agricultural workers program, and you whet my appetite by saying there were more initiatives that the government was prepared to do, either separately or in concert with other stakeholders, provinces and partner countries. This is a very important program, particularly at this time of year, and I’d like to hear a little more about that.

There’s another gap I’ve been speaking to over the last number of weeks, and that’s with respect to international students. While I very much appreciate the $9 billion program for students, there is a gap of support to international students. I’m informed that, at the end of March, about 565,000 international students were in Canada, and about 80% of them were unable to get to their country of origin as a result of the restrictions. If we take half of that, let’s say 300,000 students that will require or have some degree of stress as to whether or not they’ll be able to continue their studies, there is a gap that I would encourage you to consider by offering support through the student aid programs at our community colleges and universities for that population of some 300,000 who will otherwise either not be able to attend, be in some financial difficulty or have to return home at a significant disruptive cost to the institutions.

I’d like to hear your comment on those gaps.

Ms. Qualtrough: Thank you, senator. Those are both important questions and issues that we are facing head on and working on solutions for.

I’ll start with international students. As you know, international students are indeed eligible for the CERB. By our best information, in February, around 40% of students in Canada were working, including international students, which leads us to believe that a significant number of students — completely acknowledging the gap — are in fact eligible and getting the CERB. When we did the student benefit, as you know, we made a choice to mirror our financial aid policy and make that benefit available only to Canadian citizens and permanent residents, which does leave a gap.

To be honest, the Minister of Immigration and myself are seized with finding ways, working with universities and colleges, both to support international students right now who are on the ground and, as we look to a near future timeline, students wanting to potentially come to Canada to start or to continue their studies in the fall. We did make adjustments through IRCC to allow international students to work more while they’re studying, but that hasn’t helped enough people. We’re really digging in on what we can do to help.

Graham, I don’t know if you have anything to add.

The Chair: Minister, thank you. If there are any additional comments to be added, please have your officials put them in writing to the clerk.

Ms. Qualtrough: I will. Thank you.

Senator Smith: Welcome, minister.

We’ve learned that the government’s recent plans to crack down on CERB fraud include potentially the imposition of fines and even jail time. That seems to be a shift from when the plan was originally implemented. How will you determine whether a claim was made by mistake, because the honesty of Canadians was discussed early on in this program? How do you determine whether it was a mistake or a willing attempt to game the system?

Second, will the imposition of penalties be retroactive to the start of the program?

Ms. Qualtrough: Thank you.

As you know, the legislation from last week would have imposed both penalties and criminal offences. We heard loud and clear — and I remain committed to not in any way penalizing someone who honestly commits a mistake or error or somebody who gets an extra payment — there was a sentiment that we needed more robust ways to enforce our measures at the back end.

The criminal offence portion of the legislation, were it passed, would not be retroactive. It would start as of Royal Assent. The penalties piece would be retroactive to the start of CERB. I’ll note that the penalty or the offences don’t apply to the entire legislation. For example, the requirement that people be out there reasonably looking for work and taking jobs when it’s reasonable to do so is not captured within the penalty or offence system.

I can tell you that three months into this, my message hasn’t changed. We’re going to work with Canadians where there are errors and mistakes. But quite frankly, we have learned of situations where people are preying on the vulnerable and taking advantage of seniors, and we want to make sure those people are held to account.

Senator Smith: Wouldn’t it have been easier if the application process had provided warnings to the applicants at the beginning about fraud, just to make it simpler so you wouldn’t have to go into more of an evaluation of the actual system?

Ms. Qualtrough: I hear you, senator and, of course, in hindsight we could have picked better words, but from the beginning we wanted to get money into the hands of people as quickly as possible and we committed to do all the follow-up, and both CRA and ESDC have that capacity and it will be done.

Senator Smith: Thank you.

[Translation]

Senator Dagenais: I have two questions. When we look at the CERB envelopes the Prime Minister announced, there’s a problematic gap between what he says during his daily press briefings and reality. For example, he announced $73 billion for the emergency assistance program at $2,000 per month, but the revised estimates for May say $45 billion. That is almost $4 billion less per month. Can you tell us where the missing $28 billion from the initial announcement went? Is the Prime Minister fiddling with the numbers so he can make more announcements while giving less money to Canadians?

My second question is about the unemployment rate and the labour shortage. Some people are sitting back collecting the CERB even though their jobs are available. Others are asking their employer to pay them under the table. Can you tell us what the government is going to do to get them back to work?

Ms. Qualtrough: Those are two good questions, important questions. To answer your first question, our projections were based on what we thought the CERB would cost.

[English]

Now that we are almost four months in, with 8 million people on CERB as of June 4, paying everybody $2,000 per month for the time period that had elapsed, we were at a $44 billion price. The average is about $17 billion per month at its peak. Of course, we have fewer people on CERB now. A million people are no longer on CERB that were on CERB a month ago, which leads me to your second question.

We are doing everything possible to incentivize work and not disincentivize work. CERB was created under different circumstances when we wanted people to stay at home and not work for health reasons, and now we want people to go back to work and to work and to look for work actively. We are changing the attestation to reflect an expectation that people take a job when it’s offered to them, that they are actively looking for jobs when they can. This would have been legislated last week, but it doesn’t mean we can’t codify that requirement in the attestation. We are providing access to the job bank directly on the attestation page like we’re doing with the students.

More broadly, what we’re hearing is that people want to work. Evidence of that is last month there were 290,000 jobs created, most of them in low-income positions, meaning people who could have chosen to be on the CERB and instead chose to work. So I’m very confident that people, when offered and when able to do so, will choose to work the vast majority of the time.

Senator Galvez: Thank you, Minister Qualtrough.

My question is concerning the funds that are going to universities and research. Almost half a billion dollars has been given in the form of funds to maintain support for research training and research staff at Canadian universities, but also in the form of operating grants. These operating grants go for vaccines, diagnostic therapies, clinical management, health system interventions, et cetera. But because of the hiring, these calls for grants have brought 1,500 proposals. There are more than a hundred projects on vaccines. I feel like these funds will be diluted in the system, but most important, I wonder what are the mechanisms that are in place to follow up with each of these funding recipients and what are the methods that could be used to measure the success of this support. Thank you.

Ms. Qualtrough: To be honest, senator, I don’t have a lot of information on the grants to the universities, but, of course, I can follow up and get you more information.

With respect to the investment ESDC has made, we’ve put in $291 million to support up to 40,000 student researchers and postdoctoral fellows through the federal granting councils. I apologize. I do not like not having the granular detail you’ve asked.

Graham, can you answer or commit to following up for the senator?

Mr. Flack: We can follow up through our colleagues at the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development because they’ve led the work in this area. We haven’t been involved in the direct funding to the universities for this feature.

Senator M. Deacon: Thank you, Minister Qualtrough, for being with us and doing our best this morning together.

I’m going to pose a question that you discussed a bit earlier around migrant workers. A few weeks ago, during one of our meetings, I asked the Canadian Federation of Agriculture about the safety of migrant workers that you’ve touched on. I was assured the quality control measures were in place. We now are aware, sadly, that three migrant workers have died of COVID-19, hundreds more infected. Complaints of inadequate conditions are pretty dominant, according to the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change. In their June 8 report, the authors suggest that racism leaks into these interactions as well with a high number of complaints from Caribbean workers, who are mostly black men. It became apparent at the outset of the lockdown that these workers are vital to our food supply and food chain. I know your department is conducting inspections, but it is also my understanding that most of these inspections have been done virtually since the outbreak began. Clearly, you’re working on more being done, both in the present context and moving forward.

What more do you think the government can do to ensure these workers will be treated with dignity and respect to health to protect them from undue exposure to COVID-19 and see that we sort out the minority of employers who are guilty of infractions and are leaving a black eye on this crucial and by and large very decent, very respectful, very essential industry?

Ms. Qualtrough: Thank you, senator.

Like so many of our systems, the Temporary Foreign Workers Program has really been exposed as a broken program that needs to be fixed. We knew this. Like in long-term care, like in others, we now have an obligation to do whatever we possibly can, an obligation we’ve had forever, by the way. It’s not new. We jumped in with both feet when the pandemic broke, working and focusing our efforts on quarantine, making sure that we worked with governments like Mexico so they could feel that their citizens would be safe upon arrival. We gave funds to employers to offset some of the costs of quarantine. We made best efforts through regulatory change to ensure broader compliance and that the people were being paid. But, as you have highlighted, simply not enough. That report is horrific in terms of what it reveals in terms of working conditions, working requirements, pay. I could go on. You’ve obviously read the report. We are redoubling our efforts.

The quarantine measures were quite successful in the sense that people were safe during those two weeks. The challenge has become that once they left quarantine, they’ve gotten ill. That’s on us, and we need to figure out what we can do. We know the working conditions are challenging. We have to work with provinces and other countries. Jurisdictional situations are complicated, but that doesn’t in any way excuse the fact that we need to take a leadership role as the federal government. We are beefing up our inspections, going back to on-site inspections. We’re doing a tiger team approach where outbreaks are happening where the Public Health Agency and us are going in and doing work site assessments to figure out what’s going on and how we can help. We’re looking at starting discussions around a national housing standard for workers. Honestly, I could have an entire hour-long conversation, senator, and would be happy to do this with you, but I can tell you this is my number one priority right now.

Senator Klyne: Thank you, Minister Qualtrough, for meeting with us today and for all the work you and your colleagues and staff have been doing on behalf of Canadians.

I want to ask a question that relates to reopening shuttered businesses. As provincial governments announce a phased approach to reopen businesses, the objective now will be to get a significant portion of the workforce back to work when given reasonable notice to return to a safe workplace. Government announcements aside, it is the employer that has a duty to protect their workers and decide if they should or can reopen. Businesses will have to factor in the cost and time to make any physical changes and to install a new set of operating procedures, costs to get customers to come back, and they must ensure they can secure staffing levels to meet customers’ expectations. Finally, businesses will need to consider their financial position after burning through some or all of their cash reserves while shut down, and whether a credit facility will be required to take them beyond the wiggle room that might be afforded them via wage subsidies.

Have you and/or your ministerial colleagues given consideration to assisting with the reopening costs of a shuttered business, including the costs associated with transforming the business to adopt the incrementally new safety measures for safe return of employees and customers, the working capital that will be required to lure customers back and pay the monthly overhead to carry the business through the initial months of reopening?

Ms. Qualtrough: That is a very important question. What I think I hear you saying is basically the programs our government has put in place have focused on businesses staying afloat. You’re talking about the additional expenses associated with the new normal of doing business in COVID. I think they’re very important. I know we’re working on a number of reopening measures with the provinces. The $14 billion announcement to transfers to the provinces will go a long way in terms of creating the safety conditions that you’re talking about as we prepare to reopen but also prepare for the likelihood of a second wave of COVID. It is hoped, whether it’s CEBA or the wage subsidy, this will give businesses some capacity. It remains to be seen whether this will be sufficient.

Senator Boehm: Thank you very much, minister, for being with us today, and as well your team. I want to congratulate you on all the hard work you have undertaken.

I have two questions that are related to the disabilities portion of your portfolio. The first one is with respect to the payments that are going to the disabled, the one-time payment. It seems to me that if you have a Disability Tax Credit certificate, as authorized by CRA, you have an advantage. But if you don’t, given that an announcement was made on June 5 regarding the June 1 deadline and it takes about eight weeks to get this through CRA in terms of getting a certificate and having a doctor’s certificate to back it up, are you doing anything to ensure that people who might be eligible for this payment are not falling between the cracks?

The related question is with respect to the national Workplace Accessibility Stream, which includes funds related to setting up accessible and effective work-from-home measures. How will those funds be distributed? Do they go to the employer or to the individuals? If the individual is moving from a place of employment to the home, does that mean they could, for example, take some of their equipment with them? I’m thinking particularly of federal public servants as well in that respect. Thank you.

Ms. Qualtrough: Thank you.

First of all, we want to make sure, with respect to DTC eligibility, if you had an application in progress, that the fact that COVID means we’re processing things slower doesn’t impact your ability to qualify. As long as you had applied for the DTC — whether or not that application had been processed — we’re going to work our way through the entire backlog. What will happen is you’ll get your DTC eligibility retroactive to the date of your doctor’s determination that you should be eligible, if CRA agrees with that. The hope is, even if it takes weeks to go through the backlog, that nobody that had an application in process as of June 1 will be deemed ineligible, because it’s not fair to do that to people.

Thanks for asking about the Workplace Accessibility fund. That’s going to be delivered through the Opportunities Fund for Persons with Disabilities, which is an ESDC program. Right now, the thinking is we’ll direct it through organizations to support workers and employers. We’re looking if we can make that support more direct to employers or workers. Quite frankly, $15 million isn’t a lot of money. I hope we can get more money for oncoming years for this program. The idea is organizations that support employees or workers will be able to get them the accommodations they need working with their employers to transition to working differently in the new reality.

Senator Duncan: Thank you, minister and your staff, for being here today. We appreciate you working with us, despite the technology.

CERB has been described as a good platform to build a guaranteed livable income. It isn’t yet a GLI. We’ve talked about the fact that there are still people who do not qualify. You’ve spoken of those with disabilities and the difficulty or challenges getting a benefit through the minority Parliament. As Canadians, we’ve witnessed these challenges. We’re also witnessing a high degree of cooperation at the federal-provincial level.

There are some provinces that have tried pilots of a basic income guarantee, and there are those territories, such as the Yukon’s Comprehensive Review of health and social services programs, putting people first that has recommended that the territorial government design and implement a guaranteed annual income pilot. There has been a great deal of information from pilot projects and proposed pilots, but there’s also a clear recommendation to move beyond pilots and to implement a guaranteed livable income.

Can you tell us what steps are being taken to work interdepartmentally with CIRNAC and Finance and the provincial and territorial level to implement a minimum basic income or GLI?

Ms. Qualtrough: Thank you, senator.

As you can appreciate, our goal at the beginning was to get money out the door as quickly as possible to ensure Canadians got the help they needed as quickly as possible. Instead of giving a more modest amount to everyone, we made a choice at that time to give more money to people who needed it because they had work-related impacts because of COVID.

The conversation has shifted now to what comes next. What comes immediately next, of course, is the extension of the CERB. But what happens in September is now the conversation that is being had. Right now we are looking at how to ensure that, as we transition people back to the Employment Insurance system, people are indeed covered and that we don’t leave people behind, and the underlying issues that all those pilots addressed were related to ensuring that our systems actually responded to the needs of our citizens.

Again, like I said with our other systems, Employment Insurance has been shown to be ineffective in terms of this kind of crisis and in terms of actually reflecting the way people work now. Many Canadians aren’t covered by EI. We need to figure that out and have an important conversation about that.

The Chair: I’m looking at the time frame. I would ask Senator Loffreda, Senator Gold and Senator Martin collectively to ask their questions. You can take the option, minister, to provide the answers in writing or comment as you conclude.

Ms. Qualtrough: I will be happy to. Thank you.

Senator Loffreda: Thank you, minister, for being here with us.

This pandemic has accelerated the digital economy. Are there any concerns, considerations or government programs you can elaborate on in enhancing the skill sets of both our businesses and our workforce in meeting these challenges? Thank you.

Senator Gold: Welcome, minister. In the interest of time and being mindful of the minister’s schedule, I don’t have any questions at this point.

Senator Martin: Thank you, minister.

In your opening remarks, you talked about the failure of Bill C-17 and that you would find other ways. It’s my understanding that the support to the disabilities community in the form of the payment could have been done in another way. It was in an omnibus bill with some potentially contentious elements, and it could have been done separately. I’m just curious as to what is the other way? Had you thought of doing something for the disabilities community long before even Bill C-17 was tabled? It is a community that is quite vulnerable, so I would appreciate your answers on that. Thank you.

Ms. Qualtrough: Thank you. Quickly, I would like to give answers in writing to both of these. They are super important questions.

My brief comments would be on the skills training piece. I actually think that skills training will be a pivotal component of our successful recovery from COVID-19. We are working on some training measures now. We had an idea of a way forward on training before the pandemic. Obviously, the world has changed. As you said, it has accelerated. People need to be retrained, and we need to support them in those efforts. I’m happy to give a more fulsome answer to that because I’m very passionate about skills training.

In terms of the disability piece, we have delivered measures in a number of ways through the pandemic. We have done transfers to the provinces. We have done attestation or application-type measures. We have made direct payment. For reasons of accessibility and accommodation and not creating barriers, I opted to go with a direct payment that wouldn’t require people to wait until the provinces work things out with the government or to have to apply online or prove anything. We had a robust list of DTC recipients we could deliver this to. All we needed was basically permission to share data between CRA and ESDC to deliver the benefits.

That was a two-section bill that, as you said, was part of a larger piece of legislation last week. When we saw that we weren’t getting agreement on the other pieces, we attempted to pull the disability piece out, which maybe in hindsight I naively thought was an excellent solution because we had all-party consent on the Accessible Canada Act. That didn’t work. As I said, there are other ways to deliver this benefit. We are looking at them actively so that the timelines that I promised will be respected. Quite frankly, I’m not giving up on delivering this.

The Chair: Thank you, minister. To you and your officials, thank you very much for your availability and taking time to help us through the challenging technical difficulties in the first portion of the meeting. Thank you for that.

Honourable senators, before we move to the in camera portion of the meeting, we will take two minutes in order to prepare to start the portion on the Supplementary Estimates (A) draft report.

(The committee continued in camera.)