Pay rent or buy food: Workers face heartbreaking choice in new lockdown

As she prepared for an online training session, Nadia Vandal sighed.

“It’s stressful not knowing what’s in store for us,” said the veteran fitness instructor and professional bodybuilder.

During previous COVID closures, Vandal had been able to count on financial assistance of $ 500 per week from the federal government through the Canada Emergency Benefit (CERB). Now, as Ontario closes gyms again to help reduce the spread of the Omicron variant, Vandal fears replacing CERB – the Canadian Worker Lockdown Benefit (CWLB) – may not be enough to cover costs basic subsistence. For workers who have lost at least 50 percent of their earnings become stranded, the CWLB pays $ 300 per week. After taxes? It’s $ 30 less.

“In downtown Toronto, $ 270 a week is nothing,” Vandal said.

Workers, labor rights activists and some business owners are wondering why – with Omicron rampant and the economic outlook as uncertain as it has been during the pandemic – the new advantage is weaker. For many affected workers, the lower amount will mean a heartbreaking choice which the necessities of life will do without.

“While I’m grateful for the federal government’s $ 300 week, it’s no secret that it’s not enough to cover the cost of living, especially in Toronto,” said Ryan Duncan, a restaurant waiter who was laid off after Ontario announced a ban on indoor dining as part of its new partial lockdown, which began at 12:01 am Wednesday.

While Duncan would prefer to see federal support increase, he would also like to see help from the provincial government for restaurant workers who have been on the front lines of enforcing mask warrants and vaccine QR codes.

“The provincial government should step up its efforts … especially after relying on many of us to enforce its carelessly implemented vaccine passport system, control the ever-changing rules for guests, and adjust to limitations. evolving capacity and service restrictions, ”Duncan said. .

Carly-Rae Williams, who was also fired from her job as a restaurant waitress, acknowledges that the federal government has provided billions of dollars in financial assistance. But that, she says, doesn’t change a basic fact: city life is much more expensive than a CWLB payment.

“I understand the cost issue for the government given that it has been providing aid for almost two years, but the cost of living doesn’t care, especially in Toronto. It is mounted. So for us who live and pay rent in the city, $ 300 pre-tax is a joke, ”Williams said.

Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers Action Center, called the CWLB “completely inadequate,” and said the federal government appears to be using an outdated playbook.

“It’s clear this is a program designed before Omicron, and when the number of cases was going down and governments were looking to gradually reduce support. It’s shocking, ”Ladd said.

The weekly amount offered under the CWLB is so small that many workers will not be able to afford the rent, especially in urban centers like Toronto, Ladd argued.

“This will make it impossible for some people to stay in their homes,” Ladd said.

Some also face an agonizing choice, she said: pay rent or buy food.

“People absolutely choose between rent and food,” Ladd said, adding that the Workers Action Center is seeing a huge increase in demand for the boxes of food it provides. Food banks are also seeing increased demand, Ladd said.

A spokeswoman for Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland argued that federal government assistance has given Canada a stronger economic recovery after COVID than in other countries, particularly the United States. However, given the “extremely unpredictable” nature of the virus, spokeswoman Adrienne Vaupshas said changing aid programs is something the government will not rule out.

“The federal government will continue to help Canadians navigate the pandemic and will reassess support for individuals and businesses to deal with the circumstances of the evolving public health situation,” said Vaupshas.

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