Ron Anicich is certain he qualified.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, he applied for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, and later the Canada Recovery Benefit, going over the eligibility criteria with a fine tooth comb to make sure he qualified to receive the benefit.
The 55-year-old lifelong music industry worker and former radio host, was already ill when the lockdown went into effect, but he got sicker. He is at high risk of death from the COVID-19 because he has a genetic kidney disease and is currently receiving dialysis. Because he could no longer work, he applied to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).
When he received a Notice of Debt (NoD) from the Canada Revenue Agency late last year stating he was on the hook for CERB repayment because he hadn’t earned more than $5,000 in the year preceding the pandemic, he was surprised as his earnings were well above the eligibility threshold.
Anicich sent evidence including pay stubs which showed he matched the eligibility requirements. He is still waiting for a final response on his appeal.
Anicich who is now receiving ODSP due to his health, says repaying the CERB benefits is virtually impossible.
“By the time rent and bills are paid, just eating becomes a challenge,” he said, adding he is well under the ideal weight for receiving dialysis.
Anicich said he was extra vigilant when looking into his CERB eligibility because he did not want the payments to further interfere with his eligibility for ODSP. He noticed they were interfering with each other when deductions started coming off of his ODSP payments.
“After collecting it (CERB) for a couple of months, I realized they were going to be taking money off of my ODSP, so I had to back off,” Anicich said.
The Ontario government is deducting around $70 a month from his disability payments, because he was in “overpayment” with the province, meaning he earned more income in a month from his CERB payments than ODSP allows.
In general, single ODSP recipients get up to $1,169 per month. They can earn up to $200 a month without income support being affected. Any more, and the support benefit is clawed back.
Anicich isn’t sure how much longer he will be facing deductions. For as long as they continue, he will be receiving less than a typical payment.
He says this loss of income could push him “dangerously close” to homelessness.
“There are insufficient protections for disabled people, period,” Anicich said. “I was aware of this before I became disabled, but I thought I had a plan — that I could continue to work a little bit to help make ends meet.”
But his illness has left him unable to work, a double blow for the career musician, for whom music wasn’t just a job, it was his passion.
“It’s just a coincidence that my health deteriorated at the exact same time as COVID started,” he told the Star. “I loved my job. It kills me that I can’t do it.”
The CRA has said Canadians facing CERB repayment who are in financial hardship could apply for a debt deferral.
“While we cannot reveal the exact criteria that determines what constitutes hardship because each personal situation is different, participation in social assistance programs, family size, and income are among the many factors taken into account,” a spokesperson said Tuesday.
Anicich is still waiting for a final decision on whether or not he owes the money, so has not yet applied for this deferral.
Anicich is not alone in his situation, said Devorah Kobluk, a senior policy analyst with the Income Security Advocacy Centre. According to the provincial legislation which governs ODSP, recipients of the program are required to apply for any available financial funding they may qualify for, meaning they were told to apply for CERB.
A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services confirmed people receiving assistance were encouraged to seek out the benefit.
“Social assistance recipients are required to pursue all available financial resources. If social assistance recipients were eligible to receive the CERB … they were expected to make reasonable efforts to pursue the benefit,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Social assistance staff were advising recipients that the benefit was available and that recipients should review the federal eligibility criteria to determine whether they may qualify.”
Now, people who did not qualify are being told to repay.
The problem, Kobluk said, is that people like Anicich who are now in overpayment are facing long-term reductions in their ODSP. “It leaves clients in limbo,” she said, adding the deductions could mean the difference between being able to buy food or medication or going without.
People who need ODSP “are among the poorest and most vulnerable, marginalized people in this province and really across Canada,” Kobluk said. “They certainly can’t be giving part of their inadequate cheque to pay back debt.”
Asking people on ODSP to repay CERB is “unreasonable and unacceptable,” Kobluk said. It will just deepen the poverty they already face.
Jenna Moon is a Toronto-based business reporter, focused on personal finance and affordability. Follow her on Twitter: @_jennamoon