As our country and provinces respond to Covid-19, we’ve seen a heartening coming together by people from across party lines to tackle the problems that are coming each day. We’ve seen all parties put ideas out there, good ones that governments have then acted upon for the betterment of everyone. Unlike some of the petty infighting we’re seeing in the United States right now, here our politicians are rising to the moment for the most part.
But maybe the most notable thing that I’ve taken from this moment is the willingness and ability of our governments to react quickly and change course on announced initiatives when it’s been clear that there were issues. When we’ve seen cracks form, governments have been pretty good about moving to fill them. In a time when moving with speed is needed instead of moving with perfection, it’s necessary for governments to reach just as fast as they originally acted.
As we’re seeing new programs get announced, we’re seeing some needs crop up. We’ve seen a few come up around the announced Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) and the 75% wage subsidy. One of those issues involves an important subset of people in our society who are uniquely affected by this pandemic and the timing of it hitting. I’m talking about students, particularly post-secondary students, and the concerns facing them came up in today’s daily press conference with the Prime Minister:
For students either finishing high school or in post-secondary programs, there are unique and big problems they face. Most were getting ready to try to find summer work to help pay for their education. Given everything we’re hearing about how long shutdowns, and such may last, it’s reasonable to assume that this summer will be a write off for student hiring this summer. Even if things start to open up at the start of the Summer months, it’s easy to assume that our behaviours in the immediate term will change which will have big effects on industries that tend to employ a lot of people in the summer months.
Think of the tourism sector, summer camps and childcare and other kinds of special programing that tends to come in the summer months. It’s easy to see how many of those jobs either won’t be there this summer or even if they were, most post-secondary students will have lost at least a couple months of potential income. On top of that, those same students do not quality for any of the benefits announced to date, as was raised in the press conference today. The Prime Minister replied by saying that they’re working on this, and that’s good. But hearing this situation brought an idea back to my mind about an idea that might help in this case. It’s an idea I first heard raised by then NDP MP Olivia Chow, which she went into it during a House of Commons committee meeting back in June of 2009, then later again in another tragic circumstance in the House of Commons in February of 2013:
The Canada Summer Jobs program has been a successful federal initiative that’s help subsidize the salaries for summer students for a very long time. It’s helped not-for-profits and community groups offer programs they might not be able to otherwise, it’s helped municipalities bring on extra help in the summer months to offer needed programs and it’s helped many small businesses create good jobs in their communities. All the while, it’s also given Canadian youth great work experience that’s helped to further their future careers while earning a good wage to help pay for their schooling. It’s a win-win program, one that I got to work on directly and help administer during my three years that I spent working for HRSDC in Ontario.
But one of the drawbacks of the program has been that it only funds jobs during the summer months, from May to August. Ms. Chow’s idea way back then was to simply make Canada Summer Jobs a year-round program, allowing for those kinds of jobs and experiences to be available to any student in school to continue through out the year. In the meantime, many of those groups and municipalities that offer kids camps and other kinds of important programing could offer similar things going forward. It could offer students an easier chance to get practical experience in their areas of study during the school year, with the backing of the federal government.
And it’s a program that could be adapted to not only the situation we find ourselves in now, where social distancing measures are changing the ways that we are working, it could help many of those groups that receive money, and the students they hire, make an easier transition after we get past this phase and life goes a bit more back to normal. The only change that would need to be made to the rules of the program would be to simply eliminate the firm date parametres that exist for it now and because under the terms and conditions of the program students must be paid at least minimum wage, the salary earned by students under this program would at least be as good as what the CERB is offering.
Now this proposal doesn’t resolve the immediate situation of income for all students in this position, but right now we have government offering to pay 75% of wages up to $58,000 (which is about $43,000 by the way). So to my mind it seems totally reasonable for the Federal government to tweak and use this program, which funds up to 100% of a minimum wage position for not-for-profits, charity groups and alike to hire a student, and up to 50% of that same minimum wage for private businesses and municipalities (although this could easily be bumped up to 75% too for the sake of consistency).
In a time when we’re looking for existing programs to build off to help get money out the door, this could be a tool to help now, but also to keep in place after this horrible period passes. It’s not perfect, but I believe it takes a solid program that’s employed hundreds of thousands of Canadian students and with the right tweaks, can help us get through this period and the fall out from it. I hope that the Federal government is considering ideas like this, because in this moment all good ideas are on the table and this strikes me as one that could very well fit the moment.