Two seniors in Alberta hope their recent experiences with claims Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) can help others know they are not alone with their frustrations.
CERB was launched as the pandemic broke out during a historic slump in the labor market, when three million jobs were lost and two million hours cut.
Jacalyn Johnston in Ponoka, Alta. start collecting both Old age security (OAS) with Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) pension in August when she is eligible for it – her 65th birthday – along with previous earnings survivor’s pension after her husband’s death.
However, like many others, Johnston applied for the CERB early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was told by my daughter-in-law that I should – since I am homeschooled – be able to collect CERBs,” explains Johnston.
“So I called the number. I asked, and they said yes, you can apply. I applied for it and I got it. ”
Johnston added that the CERB liaison she spoke to confirmed whether she was homeschooling and what grade her grandchildren were in.
After the first month of collection, Johnston said her son advised her not to collect more payments in the future because it was “not the right audience”. So then, Johnston called the CERB again, to be told the second time she could actually apply.
However, a third friend told her she was ineligible a few months after she had received the benefits, Johnston called the CERB contact center again and was told that she can apply again.
“Then I got a letter in the mail — I think it was July or August — saying there was an overpayment,” she said.
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Johnston said she was told she owed the federal government $14,000. She went to a debt forgiveness company, 4 pillars, for help with debt repayment.
On top of that, Johnston claims the federal government withheld money from her OAC and GIS to help pay back the amount owed to CERB.
“Now they’re taking more than half of my pension.”
“So right now I get $193 from (OAC) and then I get $623 on my regular monthly pension (along with my widower allowance),” Johnston speak. “I don’t even make $900 a month from the government.”
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She said she’s been in touch with her local federal representative – Red Deer – Lacombe Member of Congress Blaine Calkins – whose office said they would “bring it up in Ottawa.”
Johnston said she’s frustrated finding the answer is taking even longer, when all she wants is the answer coming.
Until she responded, Johnston said she was short on cash and was frustrated that her regular pension was much smaller than she would normally receive, coupled with the burden of paying back those benefits. what she owes CERB on bills and other expenses.
She had to seek help to meet her basic needs: “What a shame, go to the food bank.”
Not the only one
Linda Rauckman knows all too well what Johnston went through – akin to a similar experience.
The 70-year-old said she initially did not apply for the CERB because she thought she was not eligible for one. At the time, the widow was making money with her own savings and her survivors’ pension.
However, after getting a job and then losing it due to the pandemic, Rauckman said she applied for benefits. Then her income suddenly changed.
“By August of this year, all of a sudden with no notice, I took $800 out of my earnings,” Rauckman said. Financing is already tight – the loss of income has hit hard.
“I’m out of debt – I’m out of debt and I have some savings – but I’ve had to use it to get through it since August.
“I just don’t know what to do – I can’t go on like this.”
Rauckman said she stopped cutting her hair and quit smoking to save money. She then went to a debt relief organization – the same organization that Johnston went to – where she was helped to reduce her repayments; However, it’s still money that Raukman believes she followed the rules to get.
“The problem is, I don’t understand. You answer these questions when you go to claim payment. I understand I did the right thing.”
Raukman and Johnston both said they were upset with being dealt with when they contacted the CERB office and hoped to receive an answer sooner.
‘Information changes from day to day’
Nina Cameron, a debt specialist and office manager at Four Pillars, says debt relief often doesn’t deal with programs for seniors. That said, she noticed an increase in seniors seeking help due to having to pay back the money they received from the CERB.
Cameron said whether it was because seniors were told they should apply for benefits or if it was a miscommunication – they had to pay back and in return they were having a hard time with the programs. other pension schemes for which they are no longer eligible. .
This is especially true for the GIS programme, according to Cameron, who has said that a pension depends only on a person’s previous year’s income to determine if they meet this year’s threshold for benefits.
“So they’re told they have to pay this back – that’s a separate matter – but then they’re also told they’re not eligible for the guaranteed income supplement, that is, they were asked to return the money, but they also received less money now. “
“They’re being penalized by two different methods at the same time.”
Cameron describes it as “painful” to see the number of seniors who have come in for help due to the fact that there are not many resources available for the older generation to use when it comes to paying off debt.
She explains that a younger person may have the opportunity to access job boards and work with someone to get a job. On the other hand, elderly people often don’t have those options as the pension depends on their overall income and medical condition etc.
That could mean a senior could live on as little as $1,200 or less monthly for the next six months until their taxes are completed, then assessed by the CRA – and only only then will their rights be restored, if the CRA decides to do so.
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Cameron said to make matters more confusing, everyone at her office is getting different answers for different situations that ultimately aren’t helping anyone, because it only creates more frustration.
“It seems like the information changes from day to day,” explains Cameron.
“People are told that if they have income from work or if they are caring for loved ones who are suffering from COVID or if they are forced to return home because of COVID-related issues, they are still eligible. regardless of whether they are elderly or not. or whether they are on a pension.
“People call directly to ask if they’re eligible and are told they’ll get benefits – and then get penalized for it.”
She added that change needs to happen early in the system as it is already a “very complicated” process for anyone – let alone seniors.
For someone who is even starting to get reassessed, there are forms to fill out, tax information to find, and Cameron explains that typically one will have access to Service Canada or an accountant to get it for you. that information.
However, due to the pandemic, Cameron said it was difficult for everyone to access those resources because of additional safety restrictions, high call volumes and limited business hours.
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Government responds to requests
In an email to Global News, Employment and Social Development Canada said no emergency benefits have been withdrawn from pension payments.
“A person’s GIS benefit is recalculated at the beginning of each billing cycle, which runs from July to June, and is based on the previous year’s income. Each year in July, thousands of seniors are GIS adjusted to reflect changes in their net income. This ensures benefits go to the most vulnerable seniors,” the statement read.
“Any income that is considered net income under the Income Tax Act is used to determine GIS amounts. Federal benefits such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) are taxable income. This means that CERB and CRB earnings in 2020 could affect GIS benefits for the payment period from July 2021 to June 2022.”
In addition, individuals who have already reimbursed their CERB and therefore believe their 2020 income should be reassessed, should contact the Canada Revenue Agency.
– wfile i from Sarah Komadina, Global News and The Canadian Press
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
https://globalnews.ca/news/8426995/alberta-seniors-pension-canadian-emergency-response-benefit/ Alberta seniors warn others after CERB disrupts pension payments: ‘I can’t go on like this’