Pandemic benefits were too generous with businesses, stringent with workers: Analysts
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has said the wage subsidy was "crucial" for small business owners.
Benefits rolled out at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic allowed vulnerable Canadians to stay healthy while maintaining an income, but business supports were excessive and show the outsized influence of business groups on public policy, economists say.
Nearly two and a half years ago, the federal government faced an unprecedented task of shutting down the economy to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19. That shutdown led to a series of pandemic relief benefits aimed at softening the blow to workers and businesses, with the two most prominent programs being the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.
Recent analysis from Statistics Canada based on census data shows two-thirds of Canadian adults received pandemic benefits in 2020, with these benefits cushioning income losses and reducing inequality.
Previous analysis from the federal statistics agency also found that, as was expected, usage of the wage subsidy program correlated with a lower probability of closure and fewer employee reductions.
While there was little time to spend on crafting the benefits and fine-tuning the details in March 2020, economists are now assessing the successes and failures of these programs in retrospect.
City of New York University economics professor Miles Corak, who has written analyses on these programs, says any evaluation needs to account for the uncertainty people and governments were facing at the time and the urgent need to keep people healthy.
That said, Corak said while the CERB was “terribly successful,” the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy was a “huge failure.”
“The Canada Emergency Response Benefit got money out the door quickly in time to keep people at home, which is what we wanted to do to save lives,” he said.
Statistics Canada data shows the number of business closures spiked dramatically in April 2020, but a sharp decline followed, bringing monthly closures to a lower level than pre-pandemic.
About 31,000 businesses closed in August 2020, while nearly 40,000 had closed in February 2020.
In hindsight, Corak said the wage subsidy program should have been smaller in scope and targeted to larger businesses with specialized needs where it would be important for companies to hold on to the same employees, such as the airline sector.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has said the wage subsidy was “crucial” for small business owners and noted in April this year that only two of five of its members reported being back to normal sales.
Corak noted that at the start of the pandemic, there was a focus on the role of front-line workers, but with time, this shifted to small businesses.
“I think the small business lobby was very effective in informing individual MPs and putting pressure on cabinet and the government to respond in a way that many unseen and unheard mothers, fathers workers and families just didn’t have that same voice,” Corak said.
The danger of the wage subsidy program, Corak said, is that it sets a precedent for providing excessive subsidies to businesses and thereby stifling innovation.
“We’re almost moving towards a basic income for small business rather than a basic income for individuals,” he said.