Report finds Alberta left millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 funds ‘on the table’

The Alberta government failed to access more than $300 million in available federal supports for things like long-term care and low-wage essential worker top-ups amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The think-tank looked at COVID-19 support transfers and programs available from the federal government and how each province used them — or didn’t — in a report released Tuesday.

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It shows that while Alberta has received more federal support than any other province (on a per capita basis), it’s only planning to put up about one per cent of its GDP on provincial spending to combat the pandemic.

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Across Canada, there was about $600 billion in COVID-19 response spending announced in 2020, the report outlined, including federal and provincial investments.

The federal government committed $343 billion in spending over three fiscal years, $24 billion of which is transferred to provinces.

“There were a whole variety of federal programs that were laid out at the start of the pandemic that move money directly to the provinces to spend on certain things like buying PPE or reopening schools and child care and those sorts of things — supporting essential workers, for instance,” said David McDonald, a senior economist with the CCPA.

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“A lot of that money was just transferred straight up to the provinces and then left to the provinces to spend how they wanted to.

“And in several cases, they haven’t fully spent that money yet — or they haven’t budgeted to that, in any event.

Most of the federal transfers to provinces are through the Safe Restart agreements (including money for testing, contact tracing, PPE and vaccination), the Safe Return to Class Fund and several cost-matching programs.

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“There’s a set of other programs that the provinces could apply to and receive money, like the essential worker wage top-up, and again, most of the provinces didn’t actually apply for and receive the full amount of money they could have got from the federal government,” McDonald said.

“So, in essence, many of these provinces that could have gained more support from the federal government chose not to, either because they didn’t apply or because they’re sitting on the money.”

Provinces, meanwhile, have committed to spending $31 billion to tackle the crisis.

“In other words, of all direct spending commitments during the pandemic, only eight per cent is coming from provincial governments — 92 per cent of that money is federal,” the report said.

It found six of 10 provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.) didn’t access the full federal amount available for the low-wage essential worker top-up. Of the $348 million in federal government top-ups for low-paid essential workers in Alberta, the province only accessed $12 million, leaving $335.8 million unspent.

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“The essential worker wage top-up was meant to raise wages for essential workers at the start of the pandemic, although the federal government has subsequently allowed provinces to use it to raise wages for low-paid health-care workers, generally,” McDonald said.

“The top-up has to be matched 25 per cent provincial (to) 75 per cent federal.

“Six out of 10 provinces could access more funds to raise wages for low-paid essential workers, but didn’t. Alberta has, by far, the highest amount left on the table as it accessed almost nothing from this program,” he said.

This was an application-based program, McDonald explained.

“So if you applied and put up your 25 per cent, the federal government would match you the other 75 per cent. This left over $330 million on the table that could have gone to support essential workers. These are low-paid essential — primarily health — workers in Alberta.

“The province just didn’t apply for the funds so they didn’t get the money and their essential workers didn’t get this critical wage support at the start of the pandemic.

“It is a bit puzzling,” McDonald added.

The report found that Albertans are receiving the highest level of per capita COVID-19 spending in Canada — worth $11,200 a person — 93 per cent of which is on the federal tab.

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In fact, Alberta receives $1,200 more support, per person, from the federal government than any other province.

“The province has received a lot of support federally and hasn’t really put up nearly as much as some of the other big provinces in terms of its provincial contributions,” McDonald said.

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Support for businesses and individuals have the most funding. Business programs equal $5,500 for every Albertan, mostly on the federal tab, through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA).

“The province’s businesses benefit disproportionately from the federal oil and gas well clean-up fund, as well as the emissions reduction fund for the oil and gas sector,” the report states.

Individual supports are worth $3,800 per person, mostly on the federal tab, through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) and Employment Insurance changes.

According to the report, provinces chipped in four per cent and six per cent, respectively, of overall support for individuals and businesses. The rest came from the federal government.

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“These transfers have come in various streams meant for particular purposes,” McDonald said. “For some of these streams, the provinces are expected to account for the funds after the fact; for others, they have to apply and provide detailed plans for how they’ll spend the federal dollars before the cheque is written.”

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The report found six out of 10 provinces (Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) don’t have sufficient plans in place to access the full amount of federal long-term care funds.

“(With) long-term care being at the epicentre of deaths in the pandemic, it is surprising that several provinces just aren’t committing the resources, aren’t putting the plans in place that would allow them to access this federal money,” McDonald said.

He hopes the release of this report pushes provincial governments to access the funds available and spend them where they’re needed most urgently.

“In terms of the variety of programs that have gone on so far, it is clear that several of these transfers have not been fully spent by the provinces,” McDonald said. “Hopefully they will be at some point in the new year, but they haven’t necessarily at this point.

“I think that that’s a bit of a warning signal to the federal government… If you’re just sending out cheques and you don’t have to see those plans in advance, you’re going to end up with provinces that have unspent money.”

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“The pandemic is happening now and there’s real need among people — Canadians who dug deep to try to stay home (in order to) stop the spread of the pandemic,” McDonald said. “It’s important that the provinces, all the money they’ve received, they go out and spend it to make sure they really truly offset the impact — both health and economic — of the pandemic.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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