The NDP is calling on the federal government to claw back pandemic wage subsidies handed to companies that took advantage of the cash to boost executive compensation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The NDP is calling on the federal government to claw back pandemic wage subsidies handed to companies that took advantage of the cash to boost executive compensation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

NDP demands federal wage-subsidy clawbacks, but critics question feasibility

Last month’s federal budget extended the wage subsidy through September

The NDP is calling on the federal government to claw back pandemic wage subsidies handed to companies that took advantage of the cash to boost executive compensation, but economists say other paths to worker support may mark a more feasible route.

In a May 13 letter to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, New Democrat Peter Julian said all publicly traded companies that received the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) should repay any bumps in salaries and bonuses for senior management.

“The wage subsidy was clearly supposed to go to workers and toward protecting Canadians’ jobs — not bonuses for top corporate brass,” the letter states.

“In a case where there’s a clear violation of what the clearly stated goals of the program were, it is absolutely appropriate to ask for that money back,” Julian said in an interview.

Though Freeland has repeatedly said the subsidy can only be used to pay employees, nowhere does it bar beefier executive compensation as a condition of that support.

Julian also criticized Ottawa for failing to add caveats restricting share buybacks and higher dividends.

Last year, hundreds of chief executives and senior managers enjoyed millions in dividends paid out by publicly listed firms that also gobbled up hundreds of millions from the CEWS program, which provides a subsidy of up to 75 per cent for payroll expenses and is estimated to cost $110.6 billion.

The NDP finance critic slammed the government for its “aggressive” moves to crack down on abuse of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, intended to help Canadians who lost work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’ve been putting pressure on people who received CERB, even when they were the victims of fraudulent behaviour by other people. But they have not stepped up and given any indication at all on the wage subsidy. And that’s simply wrong,” he said.

Freeland’s spokeswoman, Katherine Cuplinskas, stressed that the program aims to protect jobs, saying it has helped more than 5.3 million workers stay on payroll or get rehired.

CEWS, which she noted received unanimous approval in the House last July, “applies to businesses of all sizes and across all sectors to ensure that no worker falls through the cracks,” she said in an email.

Smaller retailers and the entertainment, tourism and aviation sectors reeled amid lockdowns over the past 14 months, but big-box stores, tech companies and transport firms fared well as remote work and online delivery ramped up.

Many countries introduced bans on dividend payments and other rewards within months of the first wave. Spain demanded full reimbursement of job-retention funding for companies that paid any dividends. The Netherlands imposed a ban on dividend payments, share buybacks and bonuses for executives at companies that took advantage of wage relief in the same year.

Last month’s federal budget extended the wage subsidy through September, but with a new clawback system for jacked-up executive compensation at publicly traded companies — a step the NDP now wants applied retroactively.

David Macdonald, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, says a tax rule effectively forcing reimbursement from companies that declared profits while receiving the subsidy might offer a simpler, if blunter, solution.

“The federal government can certainly change the tax rules. And they can do it retroactively if they want to,” he said.

Ottawa could also tighten the new clawback measures by including dividend boosts and share buybacks among the repay items. “There’s $25 billion that’s going to be paid out in this fiscal year, starting April 1. So there’s still time, the program’s not over.”

University of Toronto economist Michael Smart says a future program overhaul makes more sense than retroactive clawbacks, and suggests the federal government limit the subsidy to small businesses and battered sectors or apply it only to at-risk jobs.

“Any company that issues stock on the Toronto Stock Exchange does not need the government to step in,” he said. “We’ve got to get back to a focus on workers and Canadians who are experiencing income losses.”

Smart called it a “mistake” to zero in on clawbacks, highlighting potential loopholes.

“If the government were to pass a rule that CEWS gets clawed back from any company that increases dividends this year, then as the CFO of a company I would know exactly what to do: Don’t pay out a special dividend this year; pay out a special dividend next year,” he said.

“All it does is it takes the heat off of Ottawa.”

While Canadians may be “surprised or shocked” that emergency funds landed at companies that promptly lined the pockets of their C-suite staff, “that’s a tiny fraction of the overall issue of this program,” he added.

Starting in June, the revised CEWS program will raise the eligibility threshold to 10 per cent revenue loss relative to the same four-week period in 2019. A progressively lower subsidy rate as September approaches is also part of the plan.

“This money should be going to people who actually need it, businesses that actually need it, to try to stay afloat for hopefully what’s just the last few months of the pandemic,” Macdonald said.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

NDP Leadership

Just Posted

Woody’s RV World hosts a grand opening for its brand-new Abbotsford location on Saturday. (YouTube)
Woody’s RV World hosts Abbotsford grand opening on Saturday

First-ever B.C. location for successful RV chain, located on Marshall Road

Gary Abbott performs a traditional hoop dance, National Aboriginal Peoples Day in Chilliwack, 2016. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Indigenous Peoples’ Day brings a virtual celebration of culture on June 21

Event to showcase Métis dancing, traditional Stólō songs, dancing, pow wows and storytelling

A t-shirt designed by Coast Salish artist Bonny Graham (B. Wyse) includes the phrase ‘every child matters’ in a custom font inspired by Coast Salish design.
Chilliwack FC works with Stó:lō Nation Chiefs Council on t-shirt fundraiser

The youth soccer organization will sell custom-designed orange shirts, donating proceeds to the SNCC

Wilma’s Transition House Charity Golf Tournament takes place Aug. 21, 2021.
Buzz building for 2021 Wilma’s Transition House Charity Golf Tournament

The key fundraiser for the non-profit will be held Aug. 21 at the Cultus Lake Golf Course

Special weather statement issued for Fraser Valley as first summer heat arrives June 20, 2021, and set to persist all week. (Photo by James Day on Unsplash)
Second day of hot temperatures rippling across Fraser Valley

Communities from Abbotsford to Hope will see daytime high maximum temps of 32 degrees

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

The Coquihalla Lakes washroom is getting upgrades. (Submitted)
Coquihalla to get upgrades to aging washrooms

The Ministry of Transportation is providing $1 million in funding to upgrade 3 rest areas

The Sacred Hearts church on PIB land burned Monday morning. (Theresa May Jack/Facebook)
Two churches on First Nation land in South Okanagan burn to the ground

Sacred Hearts church on Penticton Indian Band land was reduced to rubble

Tl’etinqox-lead ceremony at the site of the former St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, B.C., June 18, 2021. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
‘We are all one people’: Honouring residential school victims and survivors

Love, support and curiousity: Canadians urged to learn about residential schools and their impact

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Indigenous rights and climate activists gathered outside Liberty Mutual’s office in Vancouver to pressure the insurance giant to stop covering Trans Mountain. (Photo by Andrew Larigakis)
Activists work to ensure Trans Mountain won’t get insurance

Global campaign urging insurance providers to stay away from Canadian pipeline project

In the first election with public money replacing corporate or union donations, B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau and B.C. NDP leader John Horgan take part in election debate at the University of B.C., Oct. 13, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
B.C. MLAs ponder 2022 ‘sunset’ of subsidy for political parties

NDP, B.C. Fed call for increase, B.C. Liberals have no comment

Emergency crews shut down White Rock’s Five Corners district on Feb. 19, 2020 following an assault. (File photo)
Trial underway in February 2020 death of White Rock senior

Ross Banner charged with manslaughter following Five Corners altercation

Most Read