Alberta announces new emergency payments because of COVID-19, falling oil prices

EDMONTON — Alberta is beginning measures to help people stay financially afloat during the COVID-19 crisis, including $50 million right away for those self-isolating.

Premier Jason Kenney says the money equals $573 per week for each person who meets the criteria for self-isolation, and is meant to be a bridge equivalent to an employment insurance payment until new federal aid begins April 1.

It was one of a range of measures announced by Kenney on Wednesday, including extension of tax deadlines, delays in paying utility bills, loan payment deferrals and more capital for small business owners.

“We are facing a period of profound adversity,” Kenney told the legislature chamber.

“We are prepared to do what it takes to offer a lifeline of hope for families and businesses who are and will be feeling extreme financial distress.”

Alberta reported 22 new cases of novel coronavirus to bring its total to 119.

Kenney said residents will be able to apply online for the bridge money, with funds expected to flow next week. Those who have to care for someone self-isolating will also be eligible.

Other changes include allowing residential, farm and small businesses to defer utility bill payments for three months.

Student loan payments, and interest, are frozen for six months.

The province is deferring corporate income tax payments until Aug. 31, freeing up an estimated $1.5 billion.

Customers, including businesses, of the provincially owned Alberta Treasury Branches can apply for deferrals on loan payments, and small business owners can gain access to additional working capital.

Kenney said the goal is to keep Albertans healthy now but also plant seeds to get the economy growing again once the crisis has passed.

“The more employers are able to maintain operations and continue to pay their staff, the greater the chance we have of keeping Albertans working and negating some of the damage of COVID-19 on our economy,” he said.

The Alberta aid comes on top of an $82-billion federal package of spending and tax deferrals announced earlier Wednesday by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Those programs are to begin April 1.

The federal package includes $3.8 billion to help small businesses, charities and non-profit organizations keep paying employees by subsidizing 10 per cent of an employee’s wages for three months.

Ottawa’s package will increase Canada Child Benefit payments for families and GST tax credits for low- and middle-income earners. It will also pause Canada Student Loan payments for six months and establish emergency benefits for people who don’t qualify for employment insurance.

Earlier Wednesday, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley urged Kenney to match some of the federal benefits, including the Canada Child Benefit increase of $300 per child.

Kenney said officials are still going through the federal package to see if they can supplement it.

Notley also urged Kenney to pass legislation to stop landlords from evicting renters who miss payments. Kenney said he would look at that but said it’s difficult given that landlords have different needs, and some renters could be seniors renting out a room and relying on that income.

Notley said that overall Kenney’s promises were a good start but more would be needed to help workers and families. She also said she will continue to push for new rules banning renter evictions.

“We are 12 days away from rent being due,” said Notley.

“We as the Official Opposition have made it very clear that we’d be willing to expedite passage in a single day of legislation that would ensure that evictions are banned.”

Earlier this week, Kenney announced a state of public emergency and banned all gatherings of more than 50 people.

Public recreation facilities, casinos, bingo halls, bars, museums and art galleries were closed, joining shutdowns in schools and post-secondary institutions.

Kenney’s comments came a day after the government fast-tracked rules to pass the 2020-21 budget in one night.

The budget forecasts a $6.8 billion deficit on $50 billion in revenue even before a late addition of another $500 million to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.

Notley accused Kenney of using the pandemic to ram through a budget with unrealistic revenue targets given the plunge in the price of oil and health spending that won’t keep up with the virus outbreak.

Kenney said the fast-tracking was necessary to secure funds for government during the pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 18, 2020

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press


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