When the COVID-19 situation hit Canada in early 2020, the federal government set up the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a safety net for millions who suddenly found themselves out of work. 

Eligibility rules were set to require recipients to have earned at least $5,000 in the 12 months prior to applying. Workers also couldn’t have quit their job voluntarily and had to have stopped working because of reasons related to COVID-19.

For anyone who became eligible for Employment Insurance or regular sickness benefits on or after Mar. 15, 2020, their claim was automatically processed as a CERB payment through Service Canada. 

“At that time, the rules were super unclear, and the Canadian government really just threw money at whoever checked it off,” explained Jessica Harquail, a partner at Givens LLP. 

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is now looking to collect from people who may have got more than they were eligible to receive. 

“What they’re doing is going back, and they’re saying ‘hey, you actually did have employment income, or you had benefits you were receiving, you actually should not have received this benefit, and now you need to pay us back.’” 

According to the Canada Revenue Agency, those who are asked to pay back the benefit include people who returned to work earlier than expected or received retroactive pay from their employers and people who applied for CERB but later realised they were ineligible. 

Other reasons include people who applied for CERB payments through Service Canada and the CRA for the same period or anyone who earned more than $1,000 in employment income while receiving benefits. 

“Before you’re taking advantage of any benefit -- [make sure] that you’re really cautious because it will catch up with you at some point, and nobody ever wants to be in a position where they got something that they weren’t entitled to and then have to figure out how I pay back this $3,000 payment that I wasn’t expecting,” Harquail continued. 

For those looking to pay back their benefit, the Canada Revenue Agency says to send your payment back to the department where you applied for it.  

Approximately 8.9-million Canadians applied for CERB between Mar 15 and Oct. 4, 2020, for a total of $81.6-billion.