As CERB ends, some Manitobans say they’re facing a new round of financial anxiety

Casandra Woolever normally urges her young children to use breathing techniques to calm themselves when they’re having temper tantrums.

Lately, she’s been using them herself to deal with financial stress. 

“Count backwards from 10, and do it slow,” she said. “Close your eyes and breathe. Monotone. Rhythmic.”

Woolever says that’s come in handy since she learned that she, and about 246,000 other Manitobans who received the Canada emergency response benefit, would be losing that income.

The federal government created the CERB to give financial support to people whose income was directly affected by COVID-19 shutdowns. It provided applicants with $2,000 every four weeks.

CERB officially came to and end this past weekend, and people receiving the benefit will start the transition to an employment insurance program with expanded eligibility, or to one of three new recovery benefits.

The federal government introduced legislation last week to provide what it called a “safe bridge” to help people still experiencing income loss make that transition.

This shift is another stressor in Woolever’s already busy life. The Winnipeg mom of two lost her home daycare at the start of the pandemic. She’s going through a divorce. She’s trying to invest in her clothing business, Metis Branded.

Casandra Woolever with her daughter Ophelia, 2, and son Hudson, 5, at The Forks in Winnipeg. (Lisa Landreville)

A self described go-getter, Woolever says she’s frustrated she can’t just work her way out of the stressful financial situation.

“I feel almost caged,” she said.

“I feel like I’ve been put in some type of situation where I have to sit there and deal with whatever comes my way, and I have no control over it. And then I have to put on a brave face for my kids.”

‘What do I do now?’

In the weeks before CERB ended, some agencies that help low-income Manitobans say they were overwhelmed with panicked calls and anxious questions about the changes.

“There is this fear of, ‘What do I do now?'” said Millie Acuna, a program manager at Supporting Employment and Economic Development (SEED) Winnipeg. 

Acuna says many of her clients applied for, and received, CERB even though they didn’t meet its requirements.

Now that it’s done, she says her clients don’t know how they’ll pay the benefit back, and are anxious about whether their provincial benefits from Employment and Income Assistance will be affected.

In an email, a spokesperson from the province’s Families Department said “EIA will not recover or deny provincial benefits if someone received CERB, reported it to EIA, and was later found to be ineligible for the federal benefit.

“EIA may assess overpayments if a client received CERB benefits, but did not declare them to EIA.”

Millie Acuna says SEED Winnipeg and other partners have created a financial helpline to try to help ease Manitobans’ financial worries. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Acuna says she’s seen money anxiety cause people to avoid government officials in the past, which just makes everything worse.

“Now, in a state of pandemic, in the state of all the stresses of back to school and families and … cases rising, they often will decide to run and wait for the worst-case scenario,” said Acuna.

“We are advocating and saying, ‘It’s not good to run, it’s not good to hide. We will walk you through it, we’ll give you the right language.'”

SEED Winnipeg and other partners have created a financial helpline to try to help Manitobans get their finances sorted out, and ease their worries.

Even Canadians who didn’t lose income feel stress

The Canadian Payroll Association’s (CPA) annual Survey of Working Canadians found that this year, there are more Canadians stressed about money than ever. That was in spite of the fact some Canadians said they were actually in a better financial situation than before the pandemic.

Renée El-Gabalawy, a University of Manitoba clinical psychologist who is leading a cross-Canada study on COVID-19 and mental health, says her preliminary data also suggests money stress doesn’t just affect people who lost income.

“We found that, of course, the people who have experienced financial loss are at disproportionate risk of elevated stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms,” said El-Gabalawy.

“But interestingly, there is also an effect where the people who report an elevated income throughout the pandemic, they’re also at higher risk of mental health symptoms.

“These are people who have gotten a lot busier, and that’s going to be associated with more stress and more responsibility in the workforce.”

Pandemic-related uncertainty also contributes to the stress people are experiencing, says the CPA.

‘You find out exactly what you are capable of’

Though her financial situation changes almost weekly, Woolever says she’s trying to cope by practising yoga with her kids, being mindful and appreciating a new sense of resiliency.

“You find out exactly what you are capable of doing when you’re put in a situation like that — how strong you can be mentally and physically,” she said.

“It’s a limit that you thought you’d never have to hit, and then you hit it. And you have to hit it again the next day.”

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