Mr. Speaker, I am happy to participate in the debate on Bill C-4, An Act relating to certain measures in response to COVID-19.
Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered this evening on unceded Algonquin territory.
Bill C-4 has three parts. Part 1 creates three benefits to support Canada's economic recovery in response to COVID-19 and makes consequential amendments to the Income Tax Act and regulations, part 2 amends the Canada Labour Code to extend worker protections corresponding to these benefits, and part 3 amends the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act to provide ongoing financial support to Canadians.
I will focus my comments on part 1 of Bill C-4.
During my term as employment minister, I have seen the unemployment rate go from the lowest in recorded history in January of 2020 to the highest. That, of course, means I have been presented with a big challenge in this role of serving Canadians. As employment minister, I am required to ensure that workers are supported in times of job loss and job transition. I also work to ensure that workers are well prepared for the job opportunities of the future.
I know the pandemic has had a devastating impact on individuals and families and that every lost job jeopardizes a household's financial security. That is why our priority has been supporting workers and their families ever since the pandemic started.
We created the Canada emergency response benefit, or CERB, during the time in the pandemic when we were telling people to stay home in order to flatten the curve and keep Canadians safe. We knew we are asking a lot from working Canadians, and that is why we worked tirelessly to get the CERB out of the gate in record time.
I want to take a moment to thank the incredible public servants in my department of ESDC and the Canada Revenue Agency, who worked day and night to ensure our systems could deliver the CERB effectively and efficiently for Canadians and their families.
We swiftly followed the CERB with the Canada emergency student benefit, or CESB, for students facing uncertain or non-existent job prospects over the summer.
It was clear from the beginning that the pandemic was disproportionately impacting some Canadians, including women, seniors and persons with disabilities. That is why we also provided extra support for families with children, a one-time $300 payment per child, in May and an increase to the maximum yearly Canada child benefit to keep up with the cost of living. This is in addition to the one-time payment for seniors and, coming this fall, the one-time payment for persons with disabilities. We stepped up and took action.
We also created thousands of jobs and training opportunities for youth and ensured that the not-for-profit sector received support so organizations could continue to help their communities.
To provide certainty and continuity, we recently extended the CERB by an additional four weeks, from 24 to 28 weeks. For Canadian families that rely on the CERB, our government supported them as they figured out what was happening with school and day care for their kids. In addition to this extension, we made changes to the EI program so more people could access EI benefits.
Since March 15, almost nine million people have received the CERB, helping millions of Canadians and their families avoid catastrophic household income loss, while at the same time helping to keep our economy afloat. While many Canadians have returned to the labour market, either through the Canada emergency wage subsidy or as a result of regions and sectors safely reopening throughout the summer months, we know that we need to continue to be vigilant and nimble in our efforts to support people as we continue to work together to stop the spread of the virus.
We are still in a crisis situation. We estimate that millions of Canadians still need some level of income support. People are still living in uncertain times, and our government will continue to be there for them. The new benefits in this bill are an important investment in workers and families.
This legislation reflects our vision laid out in the Speech from the Throne last week. We have a plan for a stronger and more resilient Canada. It is a plan that puts the health of Canadians at the core of government decision-making. It is a plan for equality of opportunity. It is clear and simple and leaves no one behind.
This legislation makes good on this promise. If you have lost your job, we have your back. If you cannot work because you are sick with COVID-19, we have your back. If you have to stay home to take care of a loved one for reasons related to COVID-19, we have your back.
We are here tonight to debate legislation that would create a suite of three new benefits: the Canada recovery benefit, the Canada recovery sickness benefit and the Canada recovery caregiving benefit.
Before diving into these new benefits, I would like to say a few words about the employment insurance program and the recent measures put in place to help Canadians.
There is no denying that this pandemic has highlighted the tremendous need for a modernized EI program in Canada. I have spoken about this before. It is vital that we create an employment insurance system that reflects how Canadians work and that is flexible in its ability to respond to major changes in the Canadian labour market.
Despite the imminent need to reform EI, this program is the best tool we have right now and it surpasses any new system that could possibly be brought in quickly during a pandemic. That is why in August our government announced temporary changes to the EI program that would allow more Canadians to access it this fall once the CERB ended. These changes, which have already been made through regulations, will help millions of Canadians meet the eligibility criteria in three ways.
First, with these changes, people can qualify for EI with as few as 120 hours of work. To do this, we are providing all EI claimants with a one-time credit of insurable hours; that is 300 hours for regular benefit claimants and 480 hours for special benefit claimants. This credit will boost people's insurable hours and help them qualify for EI benefits. Furthermore, the hours credit is available for one year and is retroactive to March 15.
This is of the utmost importance for women who, as we all know, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The credit of 480 insurable hours means that any woman who has had a baby since March 15 can retroactively apply for EI maternity benefits if she did not previously have enough hours to qualify prior to these new measures. This is really important. This also includes expectant mothers who received the CERB over the course of the last 28 weeks. They will now be able to transition seamlessly into EI to access their maternity and parental leave benefits.
The second way we are helping people to meet EI eligibility requirements is by setting a national unemployment rate of 13.1% across all regions of the country. This is providing a uniform requirement of 420 hours for people to qualify for EI. This adjustment will help boost the number of weeks people can receive benefits, thus providing the support Canadians need and expect.
I also want to assure Canadians in EI regions with a higher rate than 13.1% that their benefit entitlement will be based on the higher of either 13.1% or their regional rate.
The third measure we are undertaking with the EI system is to freeze the EI premium rate for two years, which will help both employees and employers.
Our changes are allowing more Canadians to access employment insurance and its associated tools and resources, like working while on claim, training, work sharing and supplemental unemployment benefit plans. All these things connect people to the workforce and provide incentives to work.
That said, many workers are still not eligible for employment insurance, even after these changes. Examples include self-employed workers, workers in the entertainment industry and workers with dependants who are forced to stay home because of school or day care closures.
That is why our government is proposing to introduce a suite of three new benefits via the legislation we have before us now. As I mentioned earlier, they are the Canada recovery benefit, the Canada recovery sickness benefit and the Canada recovery caregiving benefit.
The Canada recovery benefit will support workers who have stopped working or who had their income reduced by at least 50% due to COVID-19 and who are not eligible for EI. It will provide Canadians with $500 per week for up to 26 weeks between September 27, 2020 and September 25, 2021.
As with EI, workers must be actively looking for work. They must place no undue restrictions on their availability to work and must not decline a reasonable job offer. Just like the EI system, this new benefit will allow people to earn income from employment and/or self-employment while still receiving the benefit. We have designed a process modelled after EI's working while on claim.
Individuals who have a net income greater than $38,000 in 2020 or 2021 will be required to repay the benefit at a rate of 50¢ for every dollar earned above the threshold up to the full amount of the Canada recovery benefit received.
Our objective is to ensure that it is always in a person's interest to work when it is reasonable for he or she to do so. The Canada recovery benefit aims to accomplish just that. It balances the need for income support, while incentivizing work, and ensures that we continue to target Canadians who need the support the most.
The new recovery benefits will be subject to rigorous checks from the outset to ensure that they are paid only to those who are eligible. Unlike the CERB, the benefits will be retroactive and will be taxed at the source.
The second benefit is the Canada recovery sickness benefit. It will provide $500 per week for up to two weeks if workers are ill, are susceptible to becoming ill or must self-isolate for reasons related to COVID-19.
We want Canadians to stay calm if they are sick or maybe sick. We also want Canadians to not have to choose between making this choice and paying their bills. We want the choice to be immediate at symptom onset or advice and for Canadians to err on the side of caution. We do not want Canadians to wait for a confirmed diagnosis or a doctor's note. As much as this benefit is about the individual health of workers, it is vital to Canada's successful economic recovery. We have to ensure that workers do not go to work if they have COVID-19, or are at a high risk of contracting COVID-19 or are showing symptoms of the virus. It is in all our best interests that workplaces are safe and healthy.
Finally, while schools, day cares and day program facilities are working to safely reopen according to public health guidelines, we know that closures can and will happen. This is where the third benefit, the Canada recovery caregiving benefit, comes in. It will provide $500 per week per household for up to 26 weeks for workers who cannot work for more than 50% of the time because they have to care for a loved one due to a school, day care or day program closure.
The benefit will also be available to workers forced to stay home because a person in their care is deemed by a health care professional to be at high risk or has lost access to their usual caregiver because of COVID-19.
Finally, the benefit would support workers who have care responsibilities for a child or family member who is sick, in quarantine or at high risk of serious health complications due to COVID-19.
In order to ensure that federally regulated employees have access to job protected leave, the proposed amendments to the Canada Labour Code in part 2 of the legislation ensure access for these employees to the Canada recovery sickness and the Canada recovery caregiver benefits.
Taken together, these measures will help Canadians to safely bridge the gap between the major lockdown we had last spring and a cautious reopening of the economy this fall and winter.
In closing, I want to acknowledge the government's determination to build a stronger workforce and create jobs.
As is laid out in the throne speech, we have a unique opportunity to unlock the full potential of every Canadian. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind. Our plan is about fortifying the jobs we have, filling the jobs that are available and developing strategies to create new jobs with appropriately skilled workers.
At the core of these commitments will be the largest investment in Canadian history in training for workers. As a first step, the bill outlines an investment of $1.5 billion to the provinces and territories to support on-the-ground training services for Canadians. This initial investment will be done through the existing workforce development agreements and labour market development agreements.
We are digging in to ensure we continue to support Canadians, because we are still in a crisis. If we want to get to the point where we build back better, we first need to ensure that the foundation to do so is solid. I encourage my hon. colleagues to support this legislation to help provide that much needed solid foundation for Canadians.
I want to conclude by thanking all our front-line workers who are fearlessly looking after our health and safety in these unprecedented times. I also want to thank all the parents, teachers, teaching assistants, child care workers and support staff who make it possible for our students to return to school this fall.
As a mother of four with two still in elementary school, I know they are going above and beyond every day to keep our kids safe. We all need to stay vigilant and keep up the efforts we have been doing to stop the spread of COVID-19. I know it is not easy, but we are in this together.