We got the CERB all wrong

Survey reveals CERB boosted employment and skills development during pandemic

Katherine Scott and Trish Hennessy

Troy Media

Of all the headlines about how much the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) cost and questions about who received it, there’s a buried headline: CERB helped Canadians get better jobs after the pandemic shutdown.

Working with the Future Skills Centre and Abacus Data, we surveyed 1,500 Canadians who received the CERB during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Overwhelmingly, they said CERB was a positive experience. It provided stability during a global crisis: 70 percent of respondents said CERB had a positive impact on their household financial situation.

But CERB was more than just an income support.

Two-thirds of respondents said it helped them deal with the stress of the pandemic. Sixty percent said it allowed them to take care of ill family members. Half of them said it helped them re-enter the job market.

And here’s the real news: CERB provided the space and financial resources for many survey respondents to improve their skills.

While many Canadians hunkered down during the pandemic lockdowns binge-watching Ted Lasso and learning how to make sourdough bread, 37 percent of CERB recipients in our survey said they used the time to further their education.

CERB was a big incentive. Close to three-quarters of respondents who pursued education while on CERB said they would not have done so without income support.

The sudden and sharp shutdown of Canada’s labour market at the start of the pandemic was traumatic for many of us. The uncertainty gnawed at us. As governments re-opened the economy, transitioning from lockdown mode to re-entering the workforce wasn’t easy for everyone.

Our survey shows that CERB played a key role in easing the transition: two-thirds of respondents who returned to the workforce said CERB allowed them to re-enter the job market in a way that worked best for them. Sixty-two percent said it gave them time to think about the career or job they wanted. Aim higher!

And it worked: 35 percent of respondents changed employers, 31 percent changed their job position or got a new job title, and 30 percent shifted into a new industry. These numbers are up to 10 percentage points higher for those who chose to upgrade their skills while on CERB.

We see those results in Canada’s shifting labour market, where many workers went from low-wage jobs before the pandemic to higher-paying jobs today. In fact, almost half of survey respondents said their current job is a better skills match, they have better job satisfaction, better job security, and better income.

So why aren’t we talking about the positive benefits the CERB program had on hundreds of thousands of Canadians during one of the gloomiest periods in our history?

Receiving CERB income gave many Canadians the time and space to look for the right job, not just the first job that came along – especially young people.

This is a good news story. But there’s a caveat: the majority of survey respondents said that while CERB helped them pay the bills and think about their work life in new ways, it wasn’t enough for most people to afford to go back to school.

Much is made about the $500 weekly benefit, but it was still a bare minimum income support.

A total of 7.6 million people collected CERB – a quarter of all adults. Canada’s short-term emergency benefit programs successfully served as a financial bridge for millions to get back to employment.

As the federal government looks at Employment Insurance (EI) reform, it should not lose sight of the lessons from CERB. A better income support for the jobless should consider building a bridge between unemployment and training opportunities. That would amount to a win-win situation.

Katherine Scott is a senior researcher and Trish Hennessy is a senior strategist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ national office.