Canada's last remaining COVID-19 emergency benefits expire today and the federal government says it has no plans to renew its unprecedented support programs, created in response to the pandemic.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland's office says Canada's surging job growth and record-low unemployment rate is evidence that ongoing pandemic support will not be needed beyond May 7.
"From the onset of the pandemic, our relentless focus was on jobs — on keeping Canadians employed and on keeping their employers afloat," Freeland's press secretary Adrienne Vaupshas said in an email.
"With our economy in this position, the time for extraordinary COVID support is now over," Vaupshas added, echoing a declaration made by Freeland during her introduction of the 2022 budget in April.
Public health officials are also saying they're cautiously optimistic about signs that transmission levels are on the decline.
During a Friday news conference, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Canada is experiencing "decreasing transmission in many areas." Some indicators, such as wastewater virus levels, indicate that the Omicron wave is "showing signs of a potential plateau," Tam added.
'Our ability to spend is not infinite. The time for extraordinary COVID support is over,' said Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland on April 7. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)
The expiration of benefits means workers will no longer be paid by the government should they need to self-isolate due to a positive COVID test, or if they have to leave work to care for a child due to sickness or pandemic-related school closures.
A program for workers forced off the job due to local lockdowns also ends today.
Programs designed to support hard-hit businesses, such as one that subsidized a portion of employee wages, are also ending.
The following programs are among those expiring on May 7:
- Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit
- Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit
- Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit
- Canada Recovery Hiring Program
- Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program
- Hardest-Hit Business Recovery Program
Applications for these programs can be made retroactively and will continue to be accepted by the government after May 7. Those applying for workers' benefits have 60 days to submit their claims, while businesses have 180 days.
Workers still 'live and exist in a pandemic'
Alyse Stuart, a union representative for the Fish, Food and Allied Workers in Newfoundland and Labrador, said Ottawa's decision to end the benefits ignores the pandemic's continued disruption of Atlantic Canada's fishing sector.
She described a wave of infections running through processing plants that are just now ramping up for the busy summer season.
Most workers in these facilities don't have access to paid sick days, Stuart said, which is forcing them into a difficult choice between self-isolating and missing paycheques or going to work while sick.
"For us, it's kind of this perfect storm where these benefits are ending while we're just experiencing our own wave in these rural communities," Stuart told CBC News.
"For our members, and certainly for our rural communities, the time is still now for extraordinary measures because we continue to live and exist in a pandemic."
Small businesses struggling with debt
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is also warning that the end of business-focused supports could make it hard for struggling businesses to get back on their feet.
"Whether the supports that end this weekend are still the right supports is probably a good debate that we can have," said Corinne Pohlmann, senior vice president of national affairs at CFIB.
Only 40 per cent of small businesses have returned to pre-pandemic revenue levels, said Corinne Pohlmann, vice president of national affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. (Candian Federation of Independent Business)
She said the expiration of benefits today may be appropriate, but she called on Ottawa to consider further long-term support for businesses that have accumulated large amounts of debt during the pandemic.
The group specifically wants to see Ottawa forgive half of all debt acquired through the Canada Emergency Business Account program and to extend the repayment deadline by an extra year to December 31, 2023.
The average small business debt now stands at $140,000, according to CFIB figures, and businesses in sectors like the arts and hospitality are even deeper in the red.
"We need to still think about how we can help those hard-hit businesses that are struggling under debt that they had to accumulate through no fault of their own," Pohlmann said.