COVID-19 & The Workplace: Benefit Programs, Employment Insurance and Work-Sharing

By Jeff Smorang

The Government of Canada has consolidated its previously announced benefit programs (Emergency Care Benefit and the Emergency Support Benefit) into one program called the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit. This benefit is designed to help workers who have lost their employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB)

This program will provide taxable income support payments of about $2000 per month to Canadians who have lost their job, are sick, quarantined, or taking care of someone who is sick with COVID-19, as well as working parents who must stay home without pay to care for children who are sick or at home because of school and daycare closures. CERB will run for 4 months, backdated to March 15, 2020.

This program applies to all Canadians who have ceased working due to COVID-19, whether they are EI-eligible or not. It would also apply to those who are still employed but are not receiving income because of disruptions to their work situation due to COVID-19.

To qualify, applicants must have had $5,000 in employment income, self-employment income, or maternity or parental leave benefits for 2019 or in the 12-month period preceding the day they make the application.

Those who are already receiving EI Benefits will continue to receive them. Those who have applied for EI Benefits, but who have yet to be processed, will not need to re-apply as they will automatically be shifted to CERB.

Applications to CERB will be available in early April 2020.

EI Benefits After CERB

If workers are still unemployed after the 4-month CERB period eligible workers will be switched-over to standard EI if they are still out of work.

The Government of Canada has also relaxed eligibility for EI Sickness Benefits. Those forced to quarantine or self-isolate after the CERB coverage period would be eligible for EI Sickness Benefits.

The Government has streamlined the process for those affected by COVID-19 by giving their claims priority, by setting up a dedicated hotline, by allowing backdating, by waiving the one week waiting period and by not requiring any medical certificate requirements.


Under CERB, the Employer does not need to lay-off employees as workers can be still employed and collect payments under CERB (as long as they are not receiving an income). If there is still a shortage of work after the CERB period, Employers may want to begin laying-off employees.

An employer can lay-off employees for a lack of work as long as they are likely to return to work once demand is back. Normally, a lay-off becomes a termination where the layoff is longer than 8 weeks in a 16-week period. However, in response to the economic impact of COVID-19, The Government of Manitoba has temporarily relaxed this rule. Any lay-off that occurred after March 1, 2020 will not count towards the normal 8 weeks maximum for lay-offs. While this temporary amendment is in effect, employers can lay-off workers indefinitely.

Laid-off employees can collect EI insurance benefits. An employer may also use a Supplemental Unemployment Benefit (SUB) plan to increase their employees’ weekly earnings when they are unemployed due to a temporary stoppage of work, training, illness, injury or quarantine. This can be used to “top up” regular EI benefits.

Payments from SUB plans that are registered with Service Canada are not considered as earnings and are not deducted from EI benefits.

Work Share Program

The Federal Work Sharing Program was originally designed for a downturn in business for the forestry, steel and aluminum industries. As part of the Government’s response to COVID-19, they have temporarily allowed access to this program for employers who are directly or indirectly experiencing a downturn in business of at least 10% due to COVID-19.

The program provides EI benefits to supplement the wages of eligible employees who agree to reduce their normal working hours and share the available work while their employer recovers. Any income earned from the Work Share Program is not deducted from the employee’s EI benefits.

All employees in each Work Share Unit must agree to reduce their hours of work by the same percentage. A Work Share Unit is a group of employees with similar job duties who agree to reduce their hours of work over a specific period of time. The unit generally includes all employees in a single job description or all employees who perform similar work. A Work-Sharing agreement may include more than one Work Share Unit.

Individual employees in the same job description cannot volunteer to participate in Work-Sharing while others decline to participate and continue to work normal hours. Members with the same job description may decline to participate in the Work Sharing Agreement and can be laid-off to collect regular EI benefits.

The Work Share Agreements are available in a unionized workplace, but the Union must also sign off on the agreement. There must be an equal reduction of hours and sharing of all available work among members of a Work-Sharing unit regardless of any seniority clauses in a collective agreement.

The reduction of hours can vary from week to week, as long as the average reduction over the course of the agreement is from 10% (one half day) up to 60% (three days). The goal of the program is for all participating employees to return to normal working hours by the end of the agreement.

If the employer’s company does not recover as expected and workers are laid off during, or at the end of a Work-Sharing agreement, they can apply to transfer to regular EI benefits.

Due to COVID-19, temporary measures have extended the eligibility of such agreements from 38 week to 76 weeks, eased eligibility requirements, and streamlined the application process.

To be an eligible employer the business must be a year-round business that has operated for at least a year in Canada, it must be a private business, a publicly held company or a not-for-profit organization and they must have at least 2 employees in the Work Share Unit.

To be an eligible employee, one must be a year-round, permanent, full-time or part-time employee who is needed to carry out the day-to-day functions of the business and you must be eligible to receive EI benefits.

The Canada Child Benefit

The Government has increased the Canadian Child Benefits for 2019 and 2020. The increase provides an extra $300 per child through the Canada Child Benefit for 2019-20.