Wage subsidy program to help fund faith as congregations face COVID-19 crunch

The parishes, like many other houses of worship, have had donations dry up due to the pandemic

OTTAWA — When the Archdiocese of Toronto cancelled services at its 225 parishes due to COVID-19, it faced a big financial hit, along with difficult layoffs and pay cuts for clergy.

Priests were told to identify one or two essential parish workers to keep on the payrolls at 90 per cent of their salaries. Others would be let go so they could qualify for federal benefits, but receive a church top-up to 75 per cent of their salary. Priests would take a 30 per cent cut to their own salaries.

The parishes, like many other houses of worship, have had donations dry up due to the pandemic, which means less funding to provide religious and community services that have seen spikes in demand.

A possible financial saviour arrives next week in the form of a federal wage subsidy program, which will help keep key staff paid through the pandemic, including priests, rabbis and imams.

“We’ve kept everybody on our payroll and that’s the federal government helping us,” said Jim Milway, chancellor of temporal affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto.

Religious congregations, specifically those listed among the 86,000 registered charities in Canada, generally derive their revenues through donations at gatherings, or regular membership fees.

Catholic and Protestant churches largely live off donations made on Sundays when parishioners gather. Even if services resume tomorrow, it’s unlikely donations would spike to cover the lost time, Milway said: ”A lot of this money is gone forever.”

Others church groups have aging congregants, already tight budgets and older buildings that increase costs, but could also act as collateral for a loan, said Peter Noteboom, general secretary for the Canadian Council of Churches.

The timing of the pandemic and restrictions couldn’t be worse for mosques. The holy month of Ramadan, which began this week, is the largest month for donations when worshippers gather for break fast meals and prayers, said Imam Abdul Hai Patel from Toronto.

Some mosque staff are deferring their salaries, while others are being let go to help them qualify for federal benefits, including imams that some mosques can no longer afford, he said.

“Donation is the biggest source of revenue,” he said.

“Closure of the mosques in (Ramadan) will be the biggest loss for many of the organizations.”

Calls to Vancouver’s Beth Israel synagogue have increasingly mixed faith and finances, as congregants ask for a payment holiday on their membership dues. The answer from Beth Israel is always yes, says executive director Esther Moses-Wood.

Worsening the congregation’s financial squeeze is a drop in event revenue, since building access is restricted to key personnel.

The synagogue continues to field calls for rabbinic advice, does outreach and errands for seniors, runs virtual services on Saturdays and online hangouts during the week, while also providing regular updates on government aid programs for individuals and businesses.

Moses-Wood said she looks to see what programs the synagogue could access, including the wage subsidy program for administrative and rabbinic staff.

“The plan is to keep everyone working, all hands on deck,” she said.

“When we are applicable for certain wage subsidies, we’ll definitely take those on as a bit of relief for the financials of the synagogue while keeping people employed.”

The $73-billion wage subsidy program is expected to give $2.5 billion to Canada’s charities, based on calculations by Imagine Canada, a charity itself that promotes the sector. Religious organizations registered as charities or non-profit organizations could benefit from the program, the Finance Department said.

Applications open Monday, with first payments, retroactive to March 15, expected to arrive by the end of the following week. But fuelling decisions on whether to apply will be questions congregations ask themselves about the role of the state in funding affairs of faith, said Brian Dijkema, vice-president of external affairs for Cardus, a non-partisan, faith-based think tank.

Some may not want to apply for fear they won’t be able to criticize the government. Others may believe they’ll receive enough in donations by mail or electronically to keep paying bills.

And yet others still may receive just enough donations to keep them from hitting the revenue-drop benchmarks needed to access the wage subsidy program, Dijkema said.

“You’re going to see a different take-up in the use of this subsidy. Some churches, some mosques may not take it up all,” he said.

For those that do qualify, payments will cover up to 75 per cent of their salary, to a maximum of $847 a week for no more than 12 weeks. For those organizations that can, the government is asking employers to fill in the remaining quarter.

Noteboom, speaking from his observations and not on behalf of the council, said the wage subsidy, among other government aid, is seen as a needed financial support to bridge this economic downturn.

“I haven’t noticed any particular handwringing whether we should receive support through public tax dollars,” he said. ”I think folks are eager to participate and to also make the most of the resources that are available.”

That means using what comes in to provide community services like local food banks to support those hardest hit by the restrictions, including newcomers, refugees, low-income families and homeless populations, Noteboom said.

And for others who may have been less technologically astute prior to the crisis, the pandemic is pushing them to learn the technology to change how they provide services and fund themselves into the future.

“It’s a small silver lining in a big grey cloud,” Milway said.

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