When she applied online for the first Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) pay period in May, Melanie Leith, a 46-year-old recent graduate in Calgary, says she got through the process without a problem.
June, however, was a different story. She says the system wouldn’t let her apply online and told her to call the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).
And she’s not alone. Several mature students who spoke to Global News say they have to repeatedly complete their attestations for the coronavirus aid money over the phone, while their younger classmates have no issue applying online.
Leith says a friend of hers claimed they were told student applicants had to call in if they were aged 45 or older. She saw similar chatter on social media as well. Leith says she also asked her classmates in their Facebook group if anyone else couldn’t apply for the CESB online.
“It was only the people that were 45 or older who were having difficulties getting it,” Leith says.
The CESB is one of two personal income support programs the federal government rolled out earlier this year to help Canadians workers, students and recent graduates who lost work or their jobs due to the economic impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The CRA — which administers the two attestation-based benefits — later cranked up its efforts to crack down on fraudulent applications, including identity checks before processing certain claims and a new phone line to validate certain applicants.
But as the CRA began proactively flagging applications, requiring applicants to call in, people started reporting more and more trouble getting through the busy phone lines.
Coronavirus: Canadians support CERB but want more done to combat fraudulent claims, Ipsos poll shows
Leith says it took numerous tries over the course of a week to connect with an agent. She says she tweeted at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s account and emailed his office to ask why mature students were being forced to do their attestation over the phone, suggesting it appeared to be age discrimination.
After that, she got a call from a CRA agent, Leith tells Global News.
“(The agent) said they could see why I thought it’s age discrimination but it wasn’t — that the CRA had picked that age group because they may have been confused about their qualifications or been pressured into applying for it,” she says, referring to people aged 45 and older.
“I kind of went off about how I thought that it was a really bad age group to choose, because a lot of people in that age group have dependents or are single moms and really need that help.
“If it was a true audit then they should have just picked people randomly… not a specific age group.”
Cheryl Curtis, a 50-year-old undergraduate student and mother also based in Calgary, tells Global News she had to also queue up and complete her attestation over the phone for back-to-back applications in June and July.
In both cases, she says, the attestation questions she had to answer over the phone were “exactly the same questions” as those on the online application. Curtis says she wasn’t asked to produce any additional documentation as part of the identity checks.
She says she asked the CRA agents both in June and July why she had to do it this way and if she would have to call in again the following month, but didn’t get answers in either case.
“I imagine since it’s been twice, (the) third time will definitely be a phone in,” Curtis says.
Some question whether CERB payments offer disincentive to work
Elissa, another mature student who recently completed her undergraduate degree in Hamilton, also couldn’t apply for the student benefit online two months in a row. She’s been claiming the maximum amount distributed through the CESB — $2,000 per month — because she has a chronic medical condition.
In both June and July, Elissa says she wasn’t required to do the attestation over the phone. The agent simply updated her file so she could go back and finish the online attestation, she says.
“If you confirm me one time, it should be enough. Two times should be more than enough,” Elissa says.
“Is it because I’m getting a disability amount? Is it because I’m 38 and that looks weird? I don’t understand what’s happening. It’s very frustrating.”
Global News is only identifying Elissa by her first name because she plans to apply for work with the federal government and fears that criticizing a federal program might harm her chances of getting hired.
The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) says it’s been monitoring discussion on social media about mature students’ experiences with the CESB, but hasn’t directly received any complaints from any individuals.
However, CFS deputy chairperson Nicole Brayiannis says the concerns posted online are “troubling” and the verification process should be explained “in a coherent manner” so students understand what’s happening.
Global News asked the CRA if it was automatically flagging applications by mature students aged 45 and older and applications by students claiming the disability benefit — and if that was the case, to explain why.
Global News also asked the agency why it isn’t requiring any further documentation from students if it’s getting them to queue up on the phone and why some students are forced to call the line multiple times if their identity was supposedly verified the month prior.
In a statement, the agency says it doesn’t disclose details on “the factors which could lead to taxpayer validation” because doing so could jeopardize its compliance efforts.
Coronavirus outbreak: CRA, Service Canada working to determine number of ‘actual’ CERB fraud cases
However, the CRA confirmed there are different cases in which a CESB application might be blocked online, including “where there are known cases of identity theft and suspicious activities on the account.” An application could also be blocked in some cases “where the eligibility of the applicant is questionable and processing the application could result in negative consequences for the applicant (future benefit entitlements) and for the CRA (recovery of debt).”
“In these instances, Canadians are redirected to call the CRA to process their applications, permitting up-front verification of identity and eligibility requirements before a payment is issued,” the statement says.
“They speak directly to one of the agents, and in doing so may be asked for documentation or additional information depending on their unique circumstance. Some students might also need to validate their information in subsequent applications to ensure that they still meet the eligibility criteria.”
While the CRA’s statement didn’t answer whether its system is automatically flagging an older age group of students, the agency did confirm it is not flagging students who are claiming the maximum $2,000 payment due to disability.
Experts weigh in
Singling out students in a particular age group for identity checks would be a case of “problematic age profiling,” according to Margot Young, a professor at UBC’s Allard School of Law who specializes in equality law and socio-economic rights.
The alleged argument that older students might be more confused about their eligibility for the COVID-19 benefit “seems really arbitrary,” Young adds.
“It seems to me there’s equally an argument that people who are 19 years old and much less experienced in the world — and in program detailing and regulatory frameworks — are going to be more confused than a 46-year-old,” she says.
If the government is going to treat people differently on the basis of age, its “legitimacy” in doing so rests on the why, Young explains.
“Is there a broader public purpose that is served to kind of put an added burden, as it were, on the application process for those who are over a certain age? I don’t know,” she says.
“I think the government probably will have a tough time making that argument, particularly if the questions that get asked in person are simply the same questions that get asked online.”
From an anti-fraud perspective, expert Marc Tassé says it is “kind of odd” if the attestation that CESB applicants have to complete on the phone mirrors the online questionnaire.
But he says getting an applicant to talk on the phone can be a form of identity validation in itself.
If someone is 48 on paper but has the voice of an 18-year-old, that would raise a red flag, says Tassé, who teaches anti-corruption and ethics at the University of Ottawa’s business and law schools.
“To me, technically, it’s reassuring. It’s an additional step they’re doing to validate your identity,” he says.