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

Chemainus Secondary School 2021 graduate Nina Bumstead. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Grad ceremony proceeds, with a twist

Red carpet outside works out well for Chemainus Secondary’s Class of 2021

The Crofton trailer park home where the bodies of two people were found. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Mom still waiting for answers after daughter and her fiance found dead in Crofton

Pair discovered dead in their Crofton home in May identified as Rachel Gardner and Paul Jenkins

Chemainus street signs now contain Hul’qumi’num translations, like this one at the corner of Willow and Legion Streets. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Street signs go up in the Hul’qumi’num language

Chemainus intersections feature direct translations

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

CVRD to increase enforcement after audits reveal that curb-side recycling contamination in the district is well above acceptable limits. (File photo)
CVRD reports contamination in recyclables well above acceptable levels

Increased enforcement planned starting this summer

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross. (Photo by Peter Versteege)
BC Liberal leadership candidate condemns ‘senseless violence’ of Okanagan church fires

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross says reconciliation isn’t about revenge for past tragedies

A coroner’s inquest will be taking place at the Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni for the next week. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Teen B.C. mom who died following police custody recalled as ‘friend to many’

Police sent Jocelyn George to hospital after intoxication had gone ‘beyond the realm’ of normal detox

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2020, file photo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Nassib on Monday, June 21, 2021, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib announced the news on Instagram, saying he was not doing it for the attention but because “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

More than a dozen NFL players have come out as gay after their careers were over

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

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel speaks to the Sacred Hearts Catholic Church burning down early Monday morning, June 21, 2021. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Penticton band chief condemns suspicious burning of 2 Catholic churches

Both Catholic church fires are deemed suspicious, says RCMP

COVID-19 daily cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day moving average to June 17, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections drop to 90 on Sunday, 45 Monday

Pandemic spread dwindles as 77% of adults receive vaccine

Emergency vehicles are parked outside of the Wintergreen Apartments on Fourth Avenue. (SUSAN QUINN / Alberni Valley News)
Port Alberni RCMP investigate stabbing on Fourth Avenue

Two men were found with ‘significant’ injuries near Wintergreen Apartments

By protesting uninvited in First Nations’ territories, conservationists are acting in a neocolonial or paternalistic manner, says Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis. Photo by Heather Thomson
A closer look: do Vancouver Island First Nations support the war in the woods?

First Nations/environmentalist old growth alliance uneasy, if it exists at all

Most Read