Ottawa — Agricultural employers may soon find out whether changes to the Canada Summer Jobs program, and other new federal supports on the way, will result in more workers for the sector.
Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau on Wednesday said officials are reviewing requests from employers to see which ones will qualify to have 100 per cent of their employees’ salaries covered under temporary expansions to the summer jobs program.
Decisions would be finalized soon, she said, but no specific date was given.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on April 8 announced changes to the Canada Summer Jobs program, aimed at businesses delivering essential services with fewer than 50 employees.
Those changes include increasing the wage subsidy so employers can receive up to 100 per cent of the provincial or territorial minimum wage per employee, and extending the end date for employment to Feb. 28 next year.
That move came shortly after the federal government deemed the entire food supply chain an essential service, meaning certain producers and food processors could apply to employ people under the expanded program.
“We will put a priority on those offering essential services,” Bibeau said, adding employers will be informed “shortly” of whether or not they will receive federal dollars from the program.
Concerns over labour shortages in the agriculture sector are mounting, as restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic makes the problems it already faced finding enough workers even worse.
“We are in a situation where we are facing an even greater labour shortage,” Bibeau said, adding there will be delays or a lack of foreign workers no matter what. “So we have to compensate and we know that we have a great number of Canadians who are unemployed right now.”
A little more than one million jobs were lost in March, with employment levels dropping by 5.3 per cent according to Statistics Canada. The unemployment rate now sits at 7.8 per cent and is expected to continue rising.
Meanwhile, it’s estimated there are only about 15,000 temporary foreign workers in Canada right now – well below the 56,765 that arrived in 2018. According to the federal government, producers have applied for a total of 10,181 positions through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) in 2020.
Approvals to hire temporary foreign workers were granted to 983 businesses for 9,113 positions between January and the end of March.
Bibeau said the rate of temporary or seasonal workers entering Canada is “a bit behind the curve” relative to other years while the industry continues to be challenged by transportation issues and isolation requirements for workers arriving in Canada.
Transfers planned for top-ups
The federal government has made it easier for employers to hire Canadian workers by offering to pay wages, but there has been no action yet to encourage unemployed Canadians to find work in agriculture.
To help employers in “essential” sectors keep workers on staff, the federal government on Wednesday announced it would work with provinces and territories to set up a new transfer program.
Under that proposed program, the two levels of government would cost-share a “temporary top-up” to the wages of any low-income workers deemed “essential in the fight against COVID-19” in those provinces and territories.
The top-up would apply to essential workers earnings less than $2,500 a month, such as front-line hospital workers, long-term care workers and “those working so hard to make sure that there that is food on our shelves and tables.”
Quebec and British Columbia, for example, have already set up direct wage supports for low-income workers in essential-service sectors, and the proposed transfer program would allow Ottawa to cost-share those supports. Further details are to be released “shortly.”
Farm work in particular has become increasingly reliant on imported workers, because it is generally work Canadians don’t want – or need.
“We are actually looking at ways to encourage Canadians to work in the food industry to work in farms and processing plants,” said Bibeau, later admitting that “it’s a challenge… but we still have to do even more to encourage (Canadians) to join the industry.”
The government on Wednesday also announced further tweaks to the Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), retroactive to March 15, that would allow people to earn up to $1,000 a month while also collecting CERB funds.
The changes announced Wednesday also extend the CERB to seasonal workers who have exhausted their regular employment insurance benefits and can’t yet undertake their regular seasonal work because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The CERB will also now be extended to other workers who have recently exhausted regular EI benefits and are unable to find a job or return to work because of COVID-19.
Those changes line up with proposals from a group of 22 senators who wrote to Bibeau on April 6, asking the government to consider allowing Canadians employed in positions typically filled by temporary or seasonal agricultural workers to continue receiving CERB funds while they do farm work.
The senators also suggested Canadians working on farms should continue receiving employment insurance benefits without having their earnings clawed back. As well, they asked the federal government to pay for accommodations for those who would usually live on a farm in a communal setting.
Industry associations echoed those calls.
“We’re trying to figure out if we can find a wider way to support a greater number of producers or if we will have to go through ad hoc… programs, which would be specific to one sector and another. So we are getting there right now,” Bibeau said.
“I know that our farmers deserve you know, more support,” she said. “And we’re working really hard on that right now. A variety of recommendations are coming from the different sectors right now. So we are sorting this out.”
Earlier this week, the government announced it is offering $1,500 for each temporary foreign worker coming to Canada, to help farmers, fish harvesters, producers and processors cover costs related to containing COVID-19.
— D.C. Fraser reports for Glacier FarmMedia from Ottawa. Includes files from Glacier FarmMedia Network staff.