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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

CERB clawback exposes basic cruelty of government approach

Updated: Aug 23, 2020

There can be no justification for a $2,000 benefit clawback for people who are still out of work during a pandemic.

If you read the mainstream business press and listen to the talking heads of corporate lobby groups you might be under the false impression that the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) -- created when the pandemic exposed the generational failings of Employment Insurance (EI) and millions of Canadian faced an immediate threat of destitution -- was some kind of luxurious handout.

They have engaged in a relentless campaign against it from almost the very beginning claiming it was a disincentive to workers returning to work and that it would somehow encourage working people to laze about like slackers on summer vacation. We have been bombarded with absurd and offensive propaganda headlines like this recent one in the Globe and Mail:

The reality of this cruel and inadequate program is very different from this.

The CERB for most Canadians came to only $2,000 a month (taxable). If this were the pay for a job with a 40 hour full time work week the hourly wage it is equivalent to is $12.50, a poverty wage anywhere in the country. As I pointed out before in the piece CERB exposes business reliance on poverty wages, the only way the CERB could act to prevent workers from going back to work is if their employers were paying them very low wages or not giving them full-time hours (or both).

These same business pundits also have no issue whatsoever with the billions in government assistance that businesses have received.

The CERB is now slated to be reduced to $400 a week for many as it is folded into an "enhanced EI". This is, without any doubt, meant to "incentivize" (i.e. force) people back to shitty jobs under dangerous circumstances. The praise being heaped on this new EI program by unions like Unifor is at least partially misplaced and stems from tragically and greatly reduced expectations under neo-liberalism.

In addition to all this, however, many Canadians on the CERB are also having $2,000 of it clawed back even as the pandemic continues and even as they would obviously still be out of work if they are on the program.

When the CERB was first introduced some received what the government is calling an "advance". Countless people -- full disclosure, this included my partner Natalie -- applied for EI and were placed, by the government instead, on the CERB. They then received an "extra" initial payment. They did not request this payment.

Now, often with little notice and in waves, these workers have had entire two week period payments of the CERB reduced to zero or reduced in half to $500 from $1000 as the government seeks to recoup, in staggeringly cruel fashion, this money. The sadistic and neo-liberal logic at work seems to be that people should have planned to give money that they did not ask for that was distributed to them during a national crisis back while that crisis is still ongoing and while they remain jobless.

Here is an example of the form letter being sent out to inform recipients of their impending date with no money:

Note the condescending tone and the explicit call for people to be "actively seeking work". One can only assume that the clawback is another way to incentivize getting on with putting your life at risk for low wages and corporate profits.

Maybe workers will feel the need to look for work at stores like Loblaws and Metro who certainly seem to have colluded to take away the $2 an hour premium pay their workers were getting even though their profits were up.

The government could easily have recouped this "advance" during next year's tax season. Clawing it back now will leave numerous people in a state of total crisis. It cities like Toronto or Vancouver, receiving $1000 instead of $2000 for a month can absolutely be the difference between eating and not eating as this heartbreaking public post to a Toronto community page on Facebook shows:

There can be no possible justification for this.

Like the CERB itself this clawback shows that despite the thin facade of human decency that the program attempted to project it was little more than a corporate economic stimulus to keep some spending going and a subsidy to landlords that was meant to stave off total economic collapse until workers could be pushed back. In spite of the ludicrous praise that has been heaped on the CERB by many progressives who should know better, it was no kind of "new deal", it was spoonfuls of thin gruel tossed at the human stock that cannot be totally written out of the ledger books yet.

But, while you are still out of work, with fewer jobs available than have been for a very long time and mass business closures, and with gigantic sums of money being thrown at corporations via direct or indirect subsidies, fear not! The government is coming to make sure they get your $2,000 "advance" back right here and right now even it puts you on the street or in the food bank line.



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