COVID-19 cash benefits 'oversight': Students between semesters left in the dark

Think about the students! Won’t anyone think of the students?

This is the sentiment of thousands of post-secondary students who are currently not eligible for either employment insurance or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

“Students and graduates who are having start date delays or internships cancelled, or are unable to find work in the context of the global pandemic do not have any support,” said Alex Gold-Apel, a masters student of public policy at the University of Toronto who is set to graduate this semester.

Gold-Apel is one of the fortunate ones who has a job lined up that has not yet been impacted, but he’s still advocating for the hundreds of thousands of students who are being affected.

“This is already a very anxious time for students. It's the end of the semester, some people are graduating, and this is combined with the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next,” he said.

Currently, the CERB is available for Canadians who cannot work due to COVID-19, are eligible for EI regular or sickness benefits, have made at least $5,000 in 2019 or the past calendar year, and will be without employment for at least 14 straight days.

Students have been left in the cold during the coronavirus crisis. (Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

To qualify for EI, applicants must have lost a job through no fault of their own and worked between 420 and 700 hours in the past year without a seven-week break.

The eligibility issues leave some students in the dark, especially those who would typically only go to school for fall and winter semesters and use the summer to earn money.

“If you are looking for a job but haven’t stopped working because of COVID-19, you are not eligible for the benefit. If you are a student who had a job last year and were planning on working this summer you do not qualify for the benefit,” states a message on the CERB website.

The government did suspend student loan repayments for six months, but students set to graduate in May would have gotten that exemption pre-pandemic. 

Alex Gold-Apel, a Masters student of Public Policy at the University of Toronto who is set to graduate this semester.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of the omission, Gold-Apel sent an email on March 27 to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and other parliamentarians to raise the issue. 

“I like to think that it’s an oversight, that they were focused on people who are impacted now, and I think that is important, but I do wish they had listened to concerns about student eligibility,” he said.

Gold-Apel said the first Liberal MP who responded and engaged in dialogue was Milton MP Adam Van Koeverden, who is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth.

Yahoo Canada did not receive a response from the federal government regarding current and future plans for students.

Marvin Ryder, an associate professor of business at McMaster University, believes the government was focused on keeping kids in school, not about their financial health.

“Absolutely it’s an oversight and the reason is students are still going to school...and everyone has only been thinking of them through the scope of education,” he said.

Ryder added the thought process for the government may have been that students can just go home, and there was likely little consideration given to students going into the workforce.

“Nobody has thought of these students as graduates looking for careers or for part-time work,” said Ryder.

More than 500,000 students graduate and join the workforce at the end of every school year, but in the midst of an economic recession caused by COVID-19 that has resulted in many businesses closing or freezing hiring, students are left searching for answers.

“Those students are very quickly going to turn into something else at the end of April, graduate students will be looking to get jobs in a job market which is closed to them,” he said. “We have masters co-op students and for them, those positions probably don’t exist.”

A possible solution for students

With little acknowledgement from the government about plans to support students, Ryder believes loans may be a route the government considers.

“If one of the ways the government wants to deal with this is to give students a zero per cent loan, and with maybe some of the money being forgivable when they have to go to re-pay,” he said.

With the Bank of Canada dropping its prime rate to 2.45 per cent, Ryder adds that many would suggest students simply take out larger loans but insists that is the wrong message to send to the future.

“That debt still has to be repaid at some point. If we’re giving people grants of money like the CERB and helping small businesses, then why are we talking about saddling students with debt?” he said.

Instead, Ryder is hopeful a benefits package will be rolled out to help students who are either graduating, won’t be able to seek employment or have lost job opportunities.

In the upcoming weeks, Ryder hopes the government will correct their mistakes and offer students an aid package or make them eligible for the CERB.

“The first half of April, make a difference and say ‘we’ve thought about it and we’ve got to get you something.’ Too bad they haven’t done it so far, but the window hasn’t closed yet,” he said.

Gold-Apel on the other hand believes the government should and will do right by students, especially as they hold a lot of political power.

“I think that the government knows that young people are one of the biggest voting blocks, so I’m not worried from the political considerations that they’re aware it is a big deal,” he said.

In an ideal world, rather than the government creating a different package for students, Gold-Apel is hoping they can add them as viable candidates for the existing measures and remove the conditional dollar figure.

“I want the CERB to be extended for people who are students or recent graduates who had internships cancelled and start dates delayed,” he said.

While Gold-Apel is concerned the government just forgot about students, he’s hopeful they can make a swift change to fix their oversight.

“I don’t fault them, but I want to see it fixed, and I want to see it fixed as soon as possible,” he said.