'Cast aside': Student job seekers say they've been forgotten in federal pandemic plan

'Cast aside': Student job seekers say they've been forgotten in federal pandemic plan

Keihgan Blackmore, a McGill University law student, had plans to spend his summer in New York after a prospective research position opened up at a tech startup. That was before the city became an epicentre for the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world.

"After completing the interview, I received notice that they had cancelled the position because of the coronavirus outbreak," he said.

He's now struggling to afford next year's $10,000 tuition fee — a plight shared by many students in Canada who've seen lucrative internships or mainstay retail or restaurant jobs disappear as the economic contagion spreads.

But unlike other workers, students like Blackmore say they can't necessarily rely on the government's aid measures.

"I don't feel supported by the government at all," said Mikaela Mailly, a third-year political science and history student at McGill. "I feel like students have been cast aside."

Keihgan Blackmore (Submitted)

The government's showcase economic measure, the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB), applies to people who lost their income due to the pandemic for at least 14 consecutive days in the last month. Students who don't have a minimum annual income of $5,000, or who have not worked consistently throughout the academic year, won't qualify for the transfer, which promises to give applicants about $2,000 a month.

Trudeau says help for students is coming 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged these concerns at his daily news conference Monday and said his government is working to fill the gap.

"And I know there's also lots of university of college students wondering what kind of job you'll get this summer," Trudeau said Monday morning. "You need support now, and work is underway to get it to you as soon as possible."

At another news conference later in the day, Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos said students who have lost part-time jobs in restaurants and retail are still eligible for a range of government aid, including an automatic six-month, interest-free moratorium on student loan payments.

Duclos also noted the government's wage subsidy would help students and new graduates.

"Those wage subsidies are very substantial," he said. "They will encourage and support businesses toward either rehiring or hiring students that will otherwise lose their jobs."

Students rally and sign petitions

But students like Alex Gold-Apel say they fear they'll be the last ones to benefit from this wage subsidy.

"I think that that answer is a bit mis-targeted," he said. "Students, in that case, will be competing with everyone else for those jobs, and most employers will not prioritize a new hire or a student over existing employees."

Gold-Apel, a second-year master's student of public policy at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, has written to federal ministers asking them to adopt measures specifically to help students. He's also joined students who have signed an online petition.

Gold-Apel said one option the government should consider is providing a guaranteed basic income to all.

"It is the easiest and probably the quickest way to ensure that all Canadians get the support that they need," he told CBC. "There is a gap that needs to be addressed."

CERB forcing some to say no to work

Contract workers and freelancers in the so-called "gig economy" also may struggle to access government benefits.

Philip Sportel works in Toronto's film industry, creating visual effects. Since the pandemic began, he said, his income has dropped to 10 per cent of what he usually earns.

Since the federal benefit rules require that applicants be out of work for two weeks before applying, Sportel said he turned down a $300 paycheque for a recent small animation gig.

"I had to email them saying, 'Sorry, I can't invoice you or I won't get my government benefit,'" he said. "Which felt super wrong."

He and others have also signed a petition asking the federal government to allow people to earn extra income to supplement the CERB.

Toronto employment lawyer Lior Samfiru said he supports the idea.

"If you create a benefit that encourages people not to be employed, not to seek work, not to do whatever they can to contribute to the economy in this situation, then that is counter-productive," Samfiru said. 

"We want to incentivize individuals to work in whatever way possible. We have all these individuals in a new sector, in the gig economy, [and] they provide an important service."

On Monday, Trudeau said his government would continue to fine-tune its aid package to help workers — particularly employees in long-term care facilities or seniors residences — who would earn more if they were on CERB than they would working.

"That's why we're looking carefully at how we can increase their pay a little bit, so they do better off remaining at work, rather than going off work and receiving the CERB," Trudeau said.