Heather Scoffield: The challenge will be getting COVID-19 relief money in Canadians’ hands

The income supports are in place, the wage subsidy is set to go to employers, and the central bank is greasing the wheels of the money markets so that they can function in a predictable way.

Federal authorities have now put more than $193 billion into forming a cushion, hoping Canada’s collapsing economy can ride out the COVID-19 pandemic on the equivalent of the couch rather than in intensive care.

Liquidity measures amount to $655 billion of extra cash in the system — and counting. The government money is flowing thick. There’s a promise for more if need be, but the basic design of the government rescue package is now established.

Whether it all works depends on two key factors: the time it takes to get the virus under control, and the ability of the government apparatus to implement its plans effectively.

Obviously, the longer the pandemic persists, the longer the economy will be on ice. And the government will be under pressure to extend time-limited programs designed to help people in the short run for as long as Canadians are kept away from their workplaces.

On the science front, the race is on around the world to find better ways to still the spread of the virus, or work around it so that the labour force can pick up where it left off.

Implementation of programs, meanwhile, might not be as sexy as finding a vaccine. But at this point, that government grunt work will probably have more of an immediate impact than what science is likely to offer in the short term.

The problem is, the federal government has introduced myriad programs in quick succession, often changing the rules along the way, and ramping them up so haphazardly that regular people and business are having trouble figuring out how to get their money.

“This is 100 per cent the missing piece” to the federal attempts to ease the way for Canadians through the pandemic, says Jennifer Robson, an associate professor of political management at Carleton University.

“While everyone is busy advocating for their next clever, new idea or admonishing the government for trying to change course, people are missing the fact that implementation will be the thing that makes or breaks the new social policy infrastructure.”

Robson has taken to sifting through the fine print of every new initiative, documenting her findings in a giant table and publishing it regularly as a plain-language guide for Canadian individuals who need help and want to know where to find it.

What she sees is plenty of small problems that add up to a confusing mess for many who are in need of financial support just to pay the bills.

She points to legislation passed in a rush last week allowing for the $2,000-a-month Canada Emergency Response Benefit for people who had 14 days in a row with no pay.

But there are conflicting instructions on when those 14 days have to fall in order to qualify for the payment.

Others talk about applying for employment insurance in the days before the CERB was invented, having to wait for payment despite the promise to eliminate the one-week delay, and then not being able to switch over to the CERB, even though for some low-income workers, the CERB makes more sense.

“The issues are quite significant. I don’t know how to help our employees,” said one frustrated accountant who works for a group of restaurants that closed down mid-March.

The accountant, who asked not to be named, has spent countless hours on the phone and online sorting through conflicting information and dealing with government officials who couldn’t answer her questions.

When it comes to the 75 per cent wage subsidy for business, more details are being rolled out, but already small businesses are frantically trying to figure out how they can apply to a system that doesn’t quite exist yet.

More than 1,500 small business leaders and entrepreneurs joined the Council of Canadian Innovators and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains on a conference call on Wednesday to see how they could meet government criteria to show losses when many of their firms don’t account for their revenues in the traditional way.

“If the Canadian emergency wage subsidy program is to have its intended impact, the eligibility needs to reflect the operating metrics and structures of the businesses affected by COVID-19,” said Jim Balsillie, who chairs the council.

The government has indicated it’s open to changing the criteria, and no one is doubting the goodwill or hard work of the politicians or the thousands of bureaucrats who have been seconded to issuing coronavirus payments.

But time is ticking, bills are mounting, and many employers just won’t be able to keep things afloat while they wait for certainty, says Dan Kelly, who heads the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

He notes that the $40,000-interest-free loans the government promised are not available yet at most banks, and many companies needed that money yesterday.

“You just can’t get money right now.”

Heather Scoffield is a columnist for Torstar Syndication Services.

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