Saskatchewan's ombudsman says the provincial government followed the correct process when asking those on provincial social income assistance to return their benefits after they also collected federal income support through the CERB program.
Ombudsman Mary McFadyen released her annual report on Thursday, one of her investigations involved people who received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and were provincial social assistance clients.
McFadyen said between 2020 and 2021 her office received a total of 80 complaints from recipients of the Saskatchewan Assistance Program (SAP), Saskatchewan Income Support (SIS) and Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability (SAID).
"They thought it was unfair that Social Services considered their CERB payments to be income, which affected their eligibility for and the amount of their [benefits]," the report said.
Saskatchewan's income assistance regulations permit the government to ask for repayment if a clients' income puts them over the threshold to receive benefits.
"The SAP, SIS and SAID regulations automatically exclude a list of income sources from being used to calculate a recipient's or applicant's income. The minister has the discretion to order other sources of income to be put on the exclusion list," the report said.
Once the federal government announced the CERB program in March of 2020, Saskatchewan's Ministry of Social Services conducted a review, the report said.
In March 2020, Paul Merriman was minister of social services and he signed off on the decision.
When concerns were raised about the clawback of benefits to those who received CERB, Merriman said in September 2020, that CERB was for people who lost employment due to the pandemic and those recipients needed to tell the ministry if they were collecting CERB.
"We feel that they should have been notifying us exactly of their change of circumstance," Merriman said.
"They have an obligation to notify us if there was a change in circumstances and certainly the CERB benefit would have been a large change in their circumstance."
Saskatchewan and most Atlantic provinces decided to cut off provincial assistance or claw back payments dollar-for-dollar by the amount recipients got from CERB. Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec instituted partial clawbacks, while British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Yukon allowed people to keep both provincial and federal benefits.
The CERB program paid out about $80 billion in benefits to nearly nine million Canadians before winding down in September 2020.
Communication could have been better: ombudsman
McFadyen said Thursday, the government followed the process as per its legislation but "could have communicated right at the outset that this was going to be counted as income."
"The government can make whatever policy decisions they make. The ombudsman's role is to make sure they're done properly and are fair to people. So, the government did have the right to make that decision," McFadyen said.
"The minister decided that CERB was income, that it would not be exempt from the calculation of entitlements. The minister had the right under legislation to make this decision. It was communicated to front line staff by April 9, 2020, three days after the federal government began accepting CERB applications," the report said.
The report said the government erred in not "proactively advising clients of what would happen to their income assistance if they received the CERB benefit."
The report said the ministry did not think it was its responsibility to inform clients of the policy but the ombudsman said the government should have provided notice to clients.
McFadyen said the ministry could have deducted the amount acquired through CERB "dollar for dollar" but did not.
"Social Services exercised discretion to reduce the amount of CERB that would be considered as income on a case-by-case basis in recognition of the unprecedented nature of the pandemic. For example, it allowed recipients to make purchases with CERB that it normally would not allow. At times, it also kept benefits files open longer than normal to assist recipients."
On Thursday, current Social Services Minister Lori Carr said the government did not have a ballpark estimate of how much money was returned by clients.
"I think income assistance is a program of last resort and we take all income into consideration. So these individuals were earning $2,000 a month on the CERB program. Therefore we deducted that from benefits and it precluded them from being involved in our program for that time frame," Carr said.