Thousands of British Columbians are likely still waiting for financial compensation after the provincial government unfairly stripped them of an emergency COVID-19 benefit of $1,000.
That is one of the key findings of BC Ombudsperson Jay Chalke after his office had investigated complaints about the administration of the BC Emergency Benefit for Workers by the Ministry of Finance.
Then finance-minister Carole James announced the benefit in April 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic with the first benefits rolling out on May 1.
British Columbians had to have filed or agreed to file their 2019 taxes to be eligible. While government did not initially impose a filing deadline, it established Jan. 1, 2021 as a retroactive deadline eight weeks later. By that time, government had already received 90 per cent of all applications.
While the ministry updated its website, it did not tell people who had already submitted their applications.
“The ministry told us it was the responsibility of applicants who had already received the benefit, to later return to the ministry website to make themselves aware of retroactive changes to eligibility,” Chalke said. “That is absurd.”
Chalke said people giving clear and timely information when programs change is a “key pillar” of fairness.
“Given the speed with which pandemic relief programs were implemented, it’s acceptable that subsequent changes were made to government programs,” Chalke said. “It is even acceptable that the changes were retroactive. What is not okay is that a change was not communicated to those who applied so that they could take steps to comply with the new rule. That is unfair.”
He added that government had lots of ways to tell affected British Columbians about the changes in eligibility. “The important thing is they didn’t do anything,” he said.
About 12,000 British Columbians have had to pay back the benefit as of August 2022, with “most” of the reversals related to to the retroactive filing deadline. According to Chalke’s report, the number of reversals has increased since.
“Thus there are likely thousands of British Columbians who have had their eligibility unfairly reversed because of a tax filing deadline the ministry did not take reasonable steps to advise them of,” it reads.
Chalke recommends the ministry provide written notice to all affected British Columbians, that if they have filed their 2019 taxes since Jan. 1 2021, or agree to do so within 90 days, the ministry will return the benefit or forgive the debt owed.
“I am encouraged that the ministry has told us that it is committing to improve its communications to the public moving forward, but I am disappointed that despite this, the ministry has, so far decided to not provide financial redress for its earlier unfair administration,” Chalke said. “I am calling on the ministry to reconsider this decision.”
Heather Wood, deputy minister in the Ministry of Finance, had rejected that recommendation in a letter to Chalke.
“The Ministry’s obligation is to administer income tax legislation as it is written, and the Ministry has met this obligation,” she said. “In the Ministry’s opinion, this recommendation would result in actions contrary to the will of the Legislature.”
Finance Minister Katrine Conroy Tuesday acknowledged that government can always do a better better of communicating with the public.
“We are updating our communications, but we did let people know through a letter,” she said. “We also extended the deadline (to file taxes) even further, like the federal government extended the deadline. But then we also extended the deadline for people to apply.”