Toronto drummer Nick Fraser has watched COVID-19 eviscerate the income and opportunity generated by his music career — including a scheduled tour in Italy. But for weeks, it seemed unclear whether artists, musicians and gig workers in similar circumstances would qualify for the federal government’s new $2,000 job-loss benefit.
Now, that question has been answered — at least in part.
Earlier this week, the federal government announced plans to widen access to the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, originally intended for those whose incomes were entirely wiped out by COVID-19. Soon, it will open to those with drastically reduced earnings — expected to mean those working 10 hours or less a week, or earning less than $500 a month.
“I think it’s encouraging,” Fraser said. “That’s how the gig economy works. People have multiple streams of income and they’re going to keep the ones they are able to keep.”
While the news is a glimmer of hope for some, Montreal-based musician and photographer Tess Roby says she’s still concerned the federal government’s response won’t be sufficient.
On top of her now-paused music and photography career, Roby works 20 hours a week at a part-time job; as a result, she may not meet CERB’s new eligibility criteria — criteria she worries will still shut out too many people.
“It doesn’t surprise me that the government would leave those people out — people who are in precarious work, people who live paycheque to paycheque, people who are multidisciplinary,” she said.
“It’s really difficult to think that so many people would be forfeiting work just for a chance to qualify.”
For gig workers and artists, earnings are usually low and unpredictable in the best of times; a recent Statistics Canada study found the average annual income for those in the gig economy is $4,300.
“Gig-economy workers are part of a precarious job market — their employment is not a guarantee of a livable income. In fact, during this time, many are getting less income than before,” said Jan Simpson, president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.
The union has called on the government to expand emergency support to both gig workers and those who do not have social insurance numbers, including international students and those who are in the process of getting their permanent residency.
“These workers already lack basic protections and almost never have access to benefits like paid sick leave. Their lack of protection forces them to continue working, even when they are unwell,” Simpson said.
Many workers now deemed essential, notes Fraser, are also among the lowest paid.
“The system is broken if you’ve got the most essential workers getting paid the least, getting paid so little that income support is going to be more money than they make in the first place,” he said.
For Roby, that reality speaks to the need for something more robust than a means-tested emergency benefit.
“I think we are closer than ever before to moving in the direction of a universal basic income,” she said. “I think that should be seriously considered by our government.”
That measure, she adds, would help support people like musicians whose income will be impacted long after the immediate COVID-19 crisis subsides. Spain recently announced it would roll out a universal basic income to deal with the pandemic’s fallout.
“There’s no foreseeable sight of when any of this will resume,” Roby said. “I think live performance is going to change after this. Even when people are allowed to go back to venues to concerts, are they going to want to go back?”
Roby says she’s grateful to have received numerous messages from fans thanking her for her music, offering them a brief escape from global angst.
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“But I also can’t help but think, if you only knew how difficult this was,” she said. “This has exposed all of the cracks in our system.”
That, says Fraser, should — at some point — prompt some collective reflection.
“I hope at the end of all this there’s a little bit of a rethink about the value of people’s work,” he said.