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Reporter: Jessika Guse,  Sarah Komadina, Global News, and The Canadian Press

Two Alberta seniors are hoping their recent experiences with claiming the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) can help others know they’re not alone with their frustrations.

CERB was rolled out at the onset of the pandemic during a historic drop in the labour market, when three million jobs were lost and two million people had hours cut.

Jacalyn Johnston of Ponoka, Alta. started collecting both Old Age Security (OAS) along with Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) pensions back in August once she was eligible for it — her 65th birthday — along with previously collecting survivors pension after the death of her husband.

However, like many others, Johnston had applied for CERB at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was told by my daughter-in-law that I should — since I’m homeschooling — be able to collect CERB,” Johnston explained.

“So I called the number. I asked, and they said yes, you can apply. I applied for it and I got it.”

Johnston added the CERB contact agent she spoke with confirmed if 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 going forward as she “wasn’t in the right category.” So then, Johnston called back CERB, to be told a second time she was indeed able to apply.

However, a third friend told her she wasn’t eligible a couple more months after she had already been collecting the benefit, to which Johnston called back the CERB contact centre for the third time and was told yet again she could apply.

“Then I got a letter in the mail — I think it was July or August — stating that there was an overpayment,” she said.

Johnston said she was told she owed $14,000 in repayment to the federal government. She went to a debt relief company, 4 Pillars, to get help with the repayment.

On top of that, Johnston claims the federal government has withheld money from her OAC and GIS to also help with repayment towards the money owing for CERB.

“Now they’re taking over half my pension.”

“So right now I get $193 from (OAC) and then I get $623 for my regular pension every month (along with my) widows pension,” Johnston said. “I don’t even make $900 a month from the government.”

She said she contacted her local federal representative — Red Deer – Lacombe Member of Parliament Blaine Calkins — whose office said they would “bring it up in Ottawa.”

Johnston said she’s frustrated to find out that takes even more time, when all she wants are imminent answers.

Until she hears back, Johnston said she’s strapped for cash and feeling depressed having both her regular pension be much smaller than what she’s used to getting, along with the burden of paying back what she owes for CERB on top of bills and other expenses.

She’s had to seek help to meet her basic needs: “It’s kind of embarrassing, going to the food bank.”

Not the only one

Linda Rauckman knows all too well what Johnston has been going through — having close to the exact same experience.

The 70-year-old said she initially didn’t apply for CERB, as she thought she wasn’t eligible for it. At the time, the widow was making do 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 the benefit. Then, her income suddenly changed.

“Come August of this year, all of a sudden without no notice at all, I had $800 taken from my income,” Rauckman said. Finances were already tight — losing that income has hit hard.

“I was out of debt — I pulled myself out of debt and I had some savings — but I’ve had to use that to get me through since August.

“I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do — I can’t go on like this.”

Rauckman said she stopped getting her hair cut and quit smoking to save money. She then went to a debt relief organization — the same one Johnston went to — where she got help with a reduced repayment; however, it’s still money that Raukman believes she followed the rules to get.

“The thing is, I don’t understand. You answer these questions when you go to claim a payment. I understood I was doing the right thing.”

Raukman and Johnston both said they’re annoyed with getting the runaround when contacting the CERB office and hope to get answers sooner than later.

‘Info changes day by day’

Nina Cameron, a debt expert and office manager at Four Pillars, said the debt relief organization doesn’t typically deal with seniors programs. That said, she’s noticed an increase in seniors seeking help due to having to pay back the money they received from CERB.

Cameron said whether it was because seniors were told they should apply for the benefit or if it was a miscommunication — they’re having to pay back the money and in return, are experiencing hardships with other pension programs that they’re no longer eligible for.

This holds especially true for the GIS program, according to Cameron, who said that pension is solely dependent on a person’s previous year’s income to determine if they meet the threshold for this year’s benefits.

“So they are being told that they have to pay this amount back — which is one separate issue — but then they’re also being told they do not qualify for their guaranteed income supplement, which means they’re being told to pay money back, but they’re also receiving less money now.”

“They’re being penalized in two different methods at the exact same time.”

Cameron describes it as “painful” seeing the number of seniors that have come in for help due to the fact there are not as many resources available for the older generation to use when it comes to paying back debt.

She explained a younger person could have the opportunity to have access to job boards and to work with someone to gain employment. On the other hand, seniors typically don’t have those options due to pensions being dependant on their overall income supplement and medical conditions etc.

That could mean a senior could be living off as little as $1,200 or less monthly for the next six months until their taxes are complete, then assessed by the CRA — and only then will their benefits be reinstated, should the CRA decide to do so.

Cameron said to make matters even more confusing, people at her office are getting different answers for different scenarios which doesn’t help anyone in the end, as it just creates further frustration.

“It seems like the information changes day by day by day,” Cameron explained.

“People were told that if they had employment income or if they were taking care of loved ones who are suffering with COVID or if they were forced to go home because of COVID-related issues, that they were eligible regardless of if they were a senior or whether they were on pension.

“People phoned in directly to ask if they were eligible and were told that they were to receive the benefits — and then later were penalized for it.”

She added change needs to happen soon within the system as it’s already a “very complicated” process for anyone — let alone seniors.

For someone to even begin to get reassessed, there are forms to fill out, tax information to find and Cameron explained usually a person would have access to Service Canada or an accountant to get you that information.

However, due to the pandemic, Cameron said it’s been difficult for everyone to access those resources because of added safety restrictions, high call volumes and limited business hours.

Government responds to claims

In an email sent to Global News, Employment and Social Development Canada said none of the emergency benefits are being recovered from pension payments.

“A person’s GIS entitlement is re-calculated at the beginning of each payment cycle, which runs from July to June, and is based on the previous year’s income. Every year in July, thousands of seniors have their GIS adjusted to reflect changes in their net income. This ensures the benefits go to the most vulnerable seniors,” the statement read.

“Any income that is considered to be net income under the Income Tax Act is used to determine the amount of GIS. Federal benefits like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) are taxable income. This means that CERB and CRB income in 2020 may affect GIS benefits for the July 2021 to June 2022 payment period.”

Adding that individuals who repaid their CERB and as a result, believe that their 2020 income should be reassessed, should contact the Canada Revenue Agency.


Photo: Global News