Alberta critical worker benefit leaves some frontline employees unrecognized

·3 min read
Edwin Park owns and operates the Bruderheim Family Mart, northeast of Edmonton. It is the only grocery store in town. He's frustrated that he and his family did not qualify for the province's critical worker benefit because they own the business where they worked serving customers during the pandemic. (Sandy Park/submitted - image credit)
Edwin Park owns and operates the Bruderheim Family Mart, northeast of Edmonton. It is the only grocery store in town. He's frustrated that he and his family did not qualify for the province's critical worker benefit because they own the business where they worked serving customers during the pandemic. (Sandy Park/submitted - image credit)

As a pandemic bonus program expands to reward another 77,000 frontline workers, some people say arbitrary and unfair distinctions are leaving out worthy employees.

First announced last February, Alberta's critical worker benefit program has already distributed $1,200 cash bonuses to nearly 290,000 workers who kept hospitals, health clinics, long-term care homes, grocery stores, gas stations and medical suppliers running.

Realizing the cost-shared federal-provincial program had $99 million left in the kitty, Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping announced last month the program would take more applications for people left out of the first round.

Taxi drivers, funeral home workers, people who work in seniors' lodges and with people with disabilities as well as some child-care employees would now be rewarded if they'd worked a minimum number of hours during the second wave of the pandemic.

"We wanted to recognize as many workers as we could, recognizing that there are limited funds," Copping said in a late June interview.

Bonuses for public sector workers will flow through their employers while private businesses have until July 23 to apply online.

But critics say the program is beset with inconsistencies and deserving employees who risked their health by working between November and January remain left out.

Ranked pastries

A distinction the program seems to have made is assigning value to the type of pastries a business produces.

Simon Underwood co-owns Doughnut Party, which has two Edmonton locations. He has three employees who would meet the criteria for the benefit but his application was rejected.

Simon Underwood/submitted photo
Simon Underwood/submitted photo

However, on the government's list of employers who successfully applied for the benefit are other bakeries that sell doughnuts. A pretzel shop was also successful.

Underwood doesn't begrudge his fellow business owners. But he can't understand why bakers doing the same work wouldn't qualify.

"I'm not sure we should be having a discussion about the difference between a pretzel and a bagel and a macaron," he said.

As of May 5, 5,800 of the 12,300 companies that had applied for the benefit were approved, which means 53 per cent of applicants were turned away.

Store owners exempted

About 50 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, Edwin Park and his wife Sandy own and run the Bruderheim Family Mart.

It's the only grocery store in the town of 1,300. While employees of some grocery stores qualified, the Parks did not.

"A small grocery store like me, there is no chance to get support from the government, only because you are the owner of the business," he said. "But we do everything."

He said he works in the store seven days a week, serving customers and cleaning. His revenue took a big hit in January when they had to close the store for several weeks after family members were exposed to the virus.

Park also applied for a provincial small business relaunch grant, but has seen no money from that either.

NDP labour critic Christina Gray says MLA offices have been bombarded with calls from workers and employers frustrated with the program.

From public-sector workers not knowing when they would get a bonus to employees who missed the required number of work hours by 15 minutes, people are frustrated, she said.

"The government needs to do everything it can to get this money into the pockets of workers and into our economy," she said. "They've been dragging their heels from the beginning, and it's been a huge stress for workers."

Copping said the number of frontline workers in Alberta is just too large to pay all of them. The program's second round is trying to address some of the initial oversights, he said.

"It's always a challenge when you create a program like this," he said. "This is the intent and the objective for it, but as you drill down, well, how did it apply on the ground?"

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