A man makes his way through Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

A man makes his way through Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Feds look at using border data to find travellers applying for sickness benefit

The earliest legislation could be introduced is later this month

OTTAWA — A federal official says the government is considering using data on incoming travellers to prevent vacationers from claiming a benefit for people who must quarantine or isolate due to COVID-19.

The Canadian Press isn’t identifying the source because the person was not authorized to speak publicly on behind-the-scenes discussions.

The government promised earlier this week to introduce legislation to prevent anyone who returns to Canada after a vacation or another non-essential trip from receiving the $500-a-week benefit during the mandatory 14-day quarantine period.

The source says officials are drafting the legislation and expect it to include information-sharing mechanisms among agencies and departments to identify anyone looking to flout the rules.

The earliest legislation could be introduced is later this month when the House of Commons is scheduled to return from a break.

In the meantime, the government says it will hold off processing applications from anyone who returned from overseas until the new rules are in place, retroactive to Jan. 3.

It wouldn’t take much to for the government to start matching up names of incoming travellers with those who have applied for the sickness benefit after having updated a similar program in the last year.

That program now sees roughly 20 million names of anyone arriving by land or air shared with Employment and Social Development Canada to help its investigators identify improper payments of unemployment and seniors benefits.

Federal border officials have since 1992 shared information on arriving travellers with their counterparts overseeing benefits like employment insurance to flag claimants who didn’t tell the government about absences from Canada and whi might have received benefits they weren’t eligible to receive.

At first, the information was shared from the declaration cards people filled out on arrival, but it has since gone digital with self-serve kiosks at airports tracking names. It also now includes people arriving by land.

Those details are in two briefing notes from late 2019 and obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Employment and Social Development Canada said it began looking for EI recipients in the data just before the calendar turned to 2020. The data started being scoured for old-age security recipients over the summer.

A November 2019 briefing note to the department’s deputy minister said officials expected to “significantly increase the recovery of payments made to ineligible El claimants” because the new measures “(do) not rely on travellers to self-disclose absences from Canada.”

The department was unable to share any results from the program, but also noted it began during an unprecedented drop in cross-border travel as a result of the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Statistics Canada reported only 146,000 Canadians driving home from the United States in December, a 92.4 per cent year-over-year decline from the 1.9 million in December 2019.

But enough have returned home that the government was forced to address concerns some were using the two-week sickness benefit to finance the quarantine period, even though that wasn’t its purpose.

The sickness benefit is supposed to go to anyone who has to stay home for at least half their usual work week because they are sick or have to quarantine because of COVID-19. Anyone with underlying medical conditions can also qualify for the aid.

More than $271.4 million has been paid out in benefits since the program launched in late September, with the number of applications in each two-week pay period falling steadily since mid-October.

The government is allowing anyone exempt from the quarantine rules, such as health-care workers who need to cross the border for their jobs, to be eligible for the sickness benefit upon their return to Canada.

While the government is holding up processing of some claims, it is urging anyone who received the benefit after travelling to contact the Canada Revenue Agency to avoid repayment orders.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2021.

Coronavirustravel

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose in Canada is prepared at The Michener Institute in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)
Not all long-term care workers have received their vaccines including a Red Deer facility

There continues to be confusion in long-term care and supportive living facilities… Continue reading

Cattle graze winter pasture in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies near Longview, Alta. on Jan. 8, 2004. Concern over the provincial government’s decision to drop a coal policy that has protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies for decades is growing among area communities. At least six cities, towns and municipal districts in southwest Alberta have now expressed concern about the decision and the fact it was made with no consultation. The latest is Longview, where mayor Kathie Wight is drafting a letter to the government opposing the move. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
More southern Alberta communities voice concern over province’s plans to expand coal

Concern over the Alberta government’s decision to drop a coal policy that… Continue reading

Some residents say there is no longer an effective Nordegg fire department to respond to emergencies in the West Country. (Contributed photo).
Some Nordegg residents worry about lack of emergency response in the West Country

The possibility of wildfires or accidents is ‘scary’ says former fire leader

(Advocate file photo).
Six idling vehicles stolen in last 48 hours: Red Deer RCMP

Red Deer RCMP said Wednesday six idling vehicles in the city were… Continue reading

Toronto father-daughter duo design swimsuit tailored to transgender children

Toronto father-daughter duo design swimsuit tailored to transgender children

Dr. Richi Gill, in grey shirt, a Calgary doctor, takes part in physiotherapy in Calgary, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. Gill has gone from performing surgery to being a test subject after being involved in a research study that is expected to to lead to international clinical trials that could help those suffering from spinal cord injuries. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘Pacemaker for the spine:’ Study improves quality of life for man with spinal injury

‘Pacemaker for the spine:’ Study improves quality of life for man with spinal injury

The European commissioner in charge of health, Stella Kyriakides, speaks during an online press conference on AstraZeneca at European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Olivier Hoslet/Pool Photo via AP
EU health official blasts slow vaccine delivery, and is consulting with Canada

EU health official blasts slow vaccine delivery, and is consulting with Canada

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Canada scrambling for smaller syringes ahead of expected Pfizer vaccine label change

Canada scrambling for smaller syringes ahead of expected Pfizer vaccine label change

This electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, in yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in a lab. The Canadian Armed Forces is dealing with a dramatic increase in the number of troops who have been infected with COVID-19 over the past month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID-RML via AP
Canadian military dealing with surge in new COVID-19 infections since December

Canadian military dealing with surge in new COVID-19 infections since December

People line up at a COVID-19 testing clinic, Tuesday, January 19, 2021 in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Ontario, Quebec keep downward trend in daily COVID-19 cases; variants cause concern

Ontario, Quebec keep downward trend in daily COVID-19 cases; variants cause concern

An airliner cuts through the skies over Montreal, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. Discount carrier Flair Airlines says it will add 13 new Boeing 737 Max aircraft to its fleet. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Discount carrier Flair Airlines adds 13 Boeing 737 Max planes to fleet

Discount carrier Flair Airlines adds 13 Boeing 737 Max planes to fleet

The Cargill beef plant in High River, Alta., is shown on April 23, 2020. The president of the union representing employees at Alberta's major meat-packing plants says there needs to be a discussion about making the COVID-19 vaccine more readily available to essential workers. Thomas Hesse of UFCW 401 says he realizes there's a severe shortage of the vaccine right now, but once that is remedied workers at plants in High River, Alta. and Brooks, Alta., shouldn't have to wait too long. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Union boss wants meat-plant workers on early COVID-19 vaccine list

Union boss wants meat-plant workers on early COVID-19 vaccine list

Most Read