I thought it was supposed to be simple.
But apparently, like some Canadians who’ve successfully and unsuccessfully applied for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), I’m about to find out, it’s not always so easy.
The CERB, if you haven’t been paying close attention, is the federal program for temporary income support for those out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There’s a list of changing conditions which we won’t go into here, but can be found on the portal page here.
And basically, if you want to apply for up to $500 a week for the next 16 weeks (or renew your application once every four weeks), you’ll start your journey there.
The first thing you have to do is decide whether to apply through Service Canada or the Canada Revenue Agency, because they’re jointly administering the program.
That’s a fancy way of saying there are two sets of everything, including two sets of government bureaucracy to try to tackle if things get confusing.
Fortunately, they’ve made the first part somewhat foolproof: you fill out a questionnaire on the portal page, which directs you to the appropriate place to apply.
You can’t apply to both, and if you’re renewing, you need to stick with where you started. So it makes sense to pick the one you’ll need for the long run.
“The benefit for Canadians to apply through the ESDC/Service Canada’s Appliweb portal is that by going this route it will make it easier for them to access EI once the CERB expires for EI eligible Canadians,” wrote CRA spokesperson Christopher Doody.
So generally, if you’re an employee (not self-employed) who worked full-time at least four months last year, you’ll go through Service Canada and the Employment Insurance program.
And you’ll end up here.
There is a warning on the landing page about “technical problems” because of a high number of applications, but I breeze right through. I’ve got this.
The trouble, it seems, is if you need to reach a real live person, for example, to troubleshoot, to end an existing EI claim, or if your internet connection is questionable.
The number listed: 1-800-206-7218. I bite.
“The customer you’ve called is not available. Please try your call again later,” the recording said.
Wait. That can’t be right. It’s 11 a.m. on a Tuesday in Vancouver, 2 p.m. in Ottawa, or wherever that number leads.
I try again. And again. Nope.
Out of curiosity, I turn to Facebook and type the number in. My face reddens. I’m clearly an amateur.
There’s no shortage of anger, frustration, and along with it, plenty of advice:
A poster named Faye Harper writes: ‘It took me 17 calls between 830-9 to actually get connected (versus “we are experiencing a higher than normal call volume and not accepting calls at this time”) followed by 3.5 hours on hold before I was connected. The service agent was lovely and helpful and it was well worth the wait!”
But my favourite belongs to Janice Petrina: “Finally got put on hold for three hours. … made 2 loafs of banana bread and at 435 they answered. I swear I cried.”
I could use some of that banana bread.
Some of the posters suggest filling out a service request form, saying they’ve had luck with getting a call back within a day or two. (The reminder not to include sensitive personal information is on the surface, slightly concerning).
There are other phone numbers posted – call this, don’t call that. But it’s hard, especially in our acutely fraud-aware age, to know if they’re all legit.
The quality of the recorded greeting on one sounds so poor, I’m sure it isn’t real.
And the number is strangely close to another legitimate number I find buried on the Service Canada fraud alert page, with a few digits changed around.
Red flag. Hang up.
After a couple hours, the Service Canada spokesperson emails me back, a luxury our readers and viewers don’t have. The statement from Marie-Eve Sigouin-Campeau is brief and to the point:
There are only two ways to apply for the CERB:
- online at Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) (My note: that’s where we started)
- ·by phone at 1-833-966-2099, for those who do not have Internet access
Finally. A different number (and coincidentally one that matches the legitimate one on the fraud alert page).
So I call. And after a phone tree that’s annoying but functional (press one for English, one for.., three, one) I get a real person.
Sorry, he tells me. This isn’t the right number to apply. He tells me to call 1-833-699-0299, the number I thought was fraudulent because the numbers were the same, but not. Oops.
So I call. Another phone tree, but within minutes, a friendly voice. Who kindly tells me I’ve got the wrong number if I want to apply for the CERB by phone.
She gives me a third number: 1-800-206-7218
I gently mention that’s where I started, and she tells me to keep trying.
I still can’t get through.