Mother waits weeks for feds to sort out problems with COVID-19 benefits system

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OTTAWA — Jennifer Vaughan’s daily routine with her school-aged children has been the same for weeks as they shuffle from screen, to fresh air, to meals and back again — all from home.

Ever since school closures required Vaughan to stay home as a full-time caregiver, another part of her routine has been juggling calls to Service Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency and her local MP to fix a problem with her application for federal benefits designed for parents in her situation.

Vaughan has spent weeks trying to receive the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit, only to be stymied by how it interacts with the employment insurance system.

She has tapped her savings to cover bills and run up bills on her credit card while she waits for badly needed relief to roll in.

“They basically just keep saying that they’re working on it ASAP,” she said of her conversations with government officials.

“Well, what is ASAP? Is ASAP days or is ASAP weeks, because, honestly, I don’t have weeks at this point. I have days. I don’t know what else to do.”

She’s not alone.

The office of her local MP, Conservative Chris Lewis, told her they’ve heard from a handful of people in the same situation. A Conservative spokesman confirmed half a dozen of the party’s MPs have logged similar issues.

The government says the issue comes down to oversight measures put in place to make sure someone doesn’t receive EI payments and money from one of the three “recovery” benefits.

Vaughan was on EI in the spring during closures that affected her job for an automotive-parts manufacturer. She went back to work in September when schools in the Windsor-Essex area of southern Ontario reopened.

When schools closed again in December, Vaughan applied anew for EI, but this time received an error code.

A few phones call later, she learned she still had weeks left on her previous EI claim.

EI requires recipients to be able and available to work, which Vaughan wasn’t because her children were at home.

She opted against reopening her EI claim and instead applied for the caregiving benefit, which offers $500-a-week before deductions, to parents who have to stay home because restrictions have closed schools or daycares.

The latest federal figures show 321,350 unique applicants have been approved for caregiving benefits since it launched in October, totalling $1.25 billion in benefits before deductions.

Vaughan was told by Service Canada to wait a few days before applying for the caregiving benefit. When she did, she got another error code. The cycle of applying, getting an error code, calling Service Canada and the CRA, then waiting a few days before unsuccessfully applying again continued through December.

The government’s website notes that eligibility for the caregiving benefits requires applicants must not have applied for, or received, EI at same time.

Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough’s office said that Service Canada and the CRA share data on applicants to make sure that only one benefit is paid to someone at any given time, which can cause some delays in processing applications.

“We understand that any delay in receiving benefits creates difficulties for Canadians,” Qualtrough’s office said in a statement.

“The departments are working together to reduce delays and ensure Canadians are paid the benefits to which they are entitled, in a timely manner.”

The statement from Qualtrough’s office noted something else: Anyone with an open EI claim could still receive the caregiver benefit “as long as they were not receiving EI benefits during the same period.”

Vaughan said she has drained her savings to cover costs, and put other payments onto her credit cards to keep food on her table. It was only in the last week or so that she reached out to her parents to let them in on what was going on.

She also called the office of National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier and was told she might have to wait at least three weeks for a call back.

Vaughan said she now feels things are largely out of her control, and she has no clear idea of when everything will finally be resolved.

“This stuff doesn’t happen quickly. You call one person and then you wait several days to hear back from them,” she said.

“It’s a lot of just waiting and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press