B.C.’s most vulnerable residents will finally get the same COVID-19 benefit recovery cheques of up to $1,000 that the rest of the province started receiving at Christmas.
But advocates say the abrupt way the money is being sent out has caused confusion in the community.
“It’s not helpful to tell someone you are going to receive money and do it two months later and do it out of the blue without any prior warning,” said Helaine Boyd, co-executive director of Disability Alliance BC.
The government began sending B.C. Recovery Benefit cheques for thousands of people on disability, income assistance and seniors’ hardship on the weekend, after abandoning plans from December to make those individuals apply separately.
The money will be added on top of existing income or disability assistance payments, and given to clients in whatever way they already access their assistance — a deposit, cheque in the mail or in-person pickup at a government office.
Almost 70,000 income assistance clients are eligible, as well as 138,000 people on disability, 2,000 recipients of hardship assistance and 60,000 seniors on the province’s Senior’s Supplement program.
“Starting this week, people on income or disability assistance who have not already received their B.C. Recovery Benefit through the online application system will begin receiving their B.C. Recovery Benefit directly, without needing to apply separately,” the Ministry of Finance said in a statement Monday.
The change in policy caught people by surprise and has raised a variety of questions about eligibility and processing, said Boyd.
“This automatic $500 added to income assistance and disability assistance clients in February is great, and does provide a solution, but there is going to be some ongoing confusion on this,” said Boyd.
Some assistance clients tried to apply in December when government first opened B.C. Recovery Benefit applications, said Boyd.
But they hit roadblocks either with the paperwork, the need for 2019 income tax returns or the requirement to have a personal bank account for an online deposit, she said.
The Ministry of Finance said in a statement Monday that out of the approximately 215,000 people receiving income assistance, there are roughly 100,000 who had not yet applied for the benefit.
Disability Alliance BC said it’s been told by the province that people who applied incorrectly will have their payments analyzed and topped up if needed, while others are now not required to apply at all.
But Boyd said the news has left some in the disability community with the mistaken impression they might be getting additional payments they aren’t eligible for.
It also comes as the government cut in half the $300 monthly COVID supplement for assistance clients in January and will eliminate it entirely in March. Combined with the sudden B.C. Recovery Benefit in February, assistance clients will experience a volatile few months of payment increases and decreases, said Boyd.
Disability Alliance BC and the Opposition Liberals had called on government to deposit the benefit cheques directly to social assistance clients, given that the province already has access to their financial information to determine eligibility. But the Ministry of Finance refused in December.
Then on the weekend, the ministry reversed course.
“The first thing that went through my mind was I was appalled by government red tape and process that led us to this when the whole thing could have been avoided from day one,” said Opposition Liberal critic Mike Bernier.
“Why did they have to apply to begin with? You already have all the information? It could have been that easy and they are proving that now.”
Bernier said he sympathizes with the confusion caused by the change and for assistance clients having to wait two months while thousands of other British Columbians received cheques and spent their money.
“It was frustrating as hell for them I’m sure,” he said.
The B.C. Recovery Benefit was a promise of the NDP government in October’s provincial election. It was billed as a way to provide a bit more money into people’s pockets for Christmas, but then was beset by delays and complications after the NDP won re-election.
The government says $1 billion out of a $1.7-billion program budget for grants has been delivered, with 80 per cent of applicants so far receiving money and approximately 250,000 people still in the review process.