OTTAWA — The Canada Revenue Agency is sending out a new round of letters to pandemic aid recipients to verify they were eligible for the help, and warning of potential need for repayments.
It's the second time the agency is mailing Canada Emergency Response Benefit recipients as part of a process to verify the eligibility of the millions of Canadians who received the $500-a-week benefit.
The CRA sent out more than 441,000 letters to CERB recipients near the end of 2020 asking them to verify they met eligibility rules for the payments.
Thousands more are going out beginning Thursday, this time targeting recipients who may have earned more than the $1,000 a month the Liberals allowed beginning in mid-April 2020.
The agency says the people who are receiving letters have tax information that suggest they earned too much income during periods when they received aid.
The letters say the CRA will work on flexible repayment plans for anyone who has to give back some of the money, without interest, but warns that won't be the case for those who don't respond to the government missive.
The federal government quickly rolled out the CERB at the onset of the pandemic, only asking applicants to attest they were eligible.
The government opted for few upfront validation checks to speed up payments during lockdowns over March and April 2020 when three million jobs were lost.
In the end, the CERB doled out $81.64 billion to 8.9 million recipients.
The government has long said that officials would review claims after the fact to claw back wrongful payments.
Following a critical review by auditor general Karen Hogan last March about missed opportunities to prevent fraud and wrongful payments, the government said it would spend four years tracking down every wrongful payment.
"The few letters that will go out this week, it's the beginning. We'll start with a few thousand," said Marc Lemieux, the CRA's assistant commissioner in charge of collections and verification. "Eventually, though, for a program of that size, I think it's hundreds of thousands of letters that we'll have to send and ask people to validate their eligibility."
Letters sent in late 2020 asked some recipients to prove they met one criteria for the CERB: that they earned at least $5,000 in the preceding 12-month period.
The letters, however, caused concerns among low-income earners who feared not being able to repay, and interpreted the CRA's message as setting a deadline for repayment by the end of that year.
The agency appears to have learned from that experience and has massaged the message this time around.
Lemieux said the letters this time say that the agency has some information as opposed to none, and wants extra details to validate someone's CERB payment.
"People may have made mistakes, their situation may have changed during the period for which they were receiving the benefits," he said.
No one at this point is being asked to repay. They'll have 45 days to contact the CRA, after which the agency may decide that the person owes the money back. Lemieux said the agency plans to be flexible on repayment plans for any amounts owing.
"We may require some information about their financial situation, and then we'll see with them what is possible, and we'll see if we could accommodate them," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2022.
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press