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Working in the Time of COVID-19

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

By Hilary Marks

In early 2020 I was working full time in a transitional shelter. Life was pretty normal and structured. All that changed in mid-March when COVID arrived. I decided to go on medical leave because of the high-risk occupation I’m in and the risks I face due to my asthma and age. I applied for medical Employment Insurance (EI) online, and because of COVID the medical EI converted directly into the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The $2,000 a month was clearly a godsend, but it was less than what I had been earning.

I am also someone with Person With Disabilities status (PWD) with the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction (MSDPR). As such I am allowed to earn money up to a yearly limit of $12,000, at which point I no longer receive PWD money, but I retain PWD status, the transportation allowance, and access to medical benefits covered by the Ministry.

At the time the CERB was brought in, I heard the Ministry was going to claw back any CERB money PWD recipients received. That policy would affect my income and the incomes of others who were on PWD and also qualified for CERB. Being an advocate and a social justice warrior, I knew I had to do something about this.

I contacted the office of Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, and requested that CERB money not be deducted from people’s PWD cheques. This is an unusual time, I said, and it would be unacceptable to punish the poor during a pandemic (not that it is acceptable to punish the poor in any situation.)

It turned out that I wasn’t the only one asking for “no clawback” of the CERB. Those who phoned, wrote and emailed the Minister to voice their concerns were successful, and in May Shane Simpson announced that there would be no clawback of CERB money for those on PWD. I collected the CERB until May, when I returned to work.

But there was one other thing: the Ministry’s $300 COVID benefit. The Minister announced that “everyone” on IA and PWD would receive the benefit. The thing is, he never mentioned anything about the people on PWD who were working and whose earnings were more than $12,000 for the year. My annualized earnings exemption just happened to reach $12,000 in August. That month I received no money from MSDPR except the $52 transportation allowance, and continued access to MSDPR medical benefits. Because I was no longer receiving PWD income, I was not eligible to receive the COVID benefit, even though I continued to have PWD status.

I thought about challenging this Ministry decision. For me it was a matter of principle. As I considered what to do, I had conversations with several people, including some advocates at TAPS. Sometimes embarking on challenges to the Ministry makes me feel low, undeserving, and very frustrated. So, I have decided not to pursue it.

I am so grateful to be back at work, doing what I love. I would like to thank TAPS, with whom I have volunteered for over 10 years, for the space in the Taproot to express how social injustices happen all the time! Please stand up for what you believe in, or write about it if that is safer. I believe with each voice and each experience, we let those who govern know how it really is! Don’t give up. Together in the fight!

Hilary Marks has been a community advocate in Victoria for many years, and is currently a TAPS front desk volunteer. She also previously served on the TAPS Board of Directors for six years (the longest allowed under our term limits).

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