‘Essential’ not ‘critical’: Workers surprised to discover they won’t receive benefit

CALGARY — Some frontline workers deemed essential under previous public health restrictions say they’re frustrated to discover they do not qualify for the recently announced Critical Worker Benefit.

The joint federal-provincial program will issue a one-time $1,200 cheque to about 380,000 eligible Alberta workers this spring, meant to act as a sort of retroactive danger pay.

Among workers eligible for the benefit are grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, retail sales supervisors, couriers and security guards.

Peter Corry is semi-retired and works as a clerk at a large grocery chain’s liquor store. He performs a job very similar to grocery store clerks who perform the same work for the same employer. His counterparts will receive a cheque. Corry will not.

“When I got to the very end and saw that liquor stores and hardware stores were not included, it actually felt like a slap in the face,” he said.

“Looking for a can of soup or looking for a bottle of wine, you’re helping the customer out and you’re in close contact.”

Hugh Gilmore works the counter at a major auto parts store. He’s worked steadily since the start of the pandemic, and was also deemed an essential service.

Gilmore says everyday he serves as many as 10 customers who refuse to wear a mask.

“We still have to serve them regardless of whether they’re masked or not, so we have to put ourselves at risk and we ave done so everyday,” he said.

He says his employer applied for the benefit on behalf of the front counter staff.

“Within hours, not only did the criterion change for the benefits payouts, they were summarily rejected with no explanation given,” said Gilmore.

The program uses $346 million in federal dollars with a further $118 million kicked in by the province. It is primarily meant to assist critical lower wage frontline workers, defined as earning less than $25 an hour. There are some exceptions for public sector employees.

Among the other jobs covered are school librarians, custodians and education assistants. The Alberta Teachers’ Association says that despite earning on average about $30,000-a-year and being laid off last spring, substitute teachers were not included.

“If a substitute teacher should have to isolate because of COVID exposure, they don’t have the ability to work and create income like the rest of us would,” says ATA president Jason Schillling. He added they arguably face more risks than teachers, moving between schools and often filling in for teacher displaced by possible COVID exposures.

The province has said that “essential” workers make up such a massive portion of the workforce it’s just not possible to make a meaningful payment to all of them.

The Government of Alberta will distribute the benefit cheques to eligible public sector workers. Private sector employers have to apply on behalf of their staff, and if an eligible worker has left or been laid off, they need to be returned to the payroll at least temporarily in order to process the application.

The province has an email and a phone number for employers looking for information on applications, as well as a website detailing what jobs are eligible. They can be reached at cwb@gov.ab.ca or by phone at 310-4455.

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