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OTTAWA – The Canada Revenue Agency has fired 20 of its employees and is investigating roughly 580 others for claiming the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) while working for the tax authority.
In a statement late Friday evening, agency spokesperson Sylvie Branch confirmed the organization was investigating 600 of its workers it suspects “inappropriately” received the $2,000-per-month CERB “while employed with the CRA.”
She also confirmed that the agency had fired 20 of them to date, but that more are surely to come as the investigations progress.
The latest data mean that the CRA suspects up to one per cent of its 60,000 employees may have collected CERB while ineligible, a number the agency calls “very limited.”
The new data show the CRA has found a staggering increase in cases of problems with employees collecting CERB since March, when the agency reported to MPs on the House public accounts committee that it suspected 10 of its employees had ineligibly claimed CERB while working.
At around the same time, the CRA said that it had fired “a number” of its staff who received CERB while working for the agency, but refused to specify how many because it was “too small to disclose without creating a privacy risk,” according to a document tabled in the House in response to a question posed by the Conservatives.
CRA investigating or firing employees who received CERB benefits while employed at tax department
Federal department fired 49 employees who received CERB benefit though employed
Branch, the CRA spokesperson, said the department discovered hundreds of suspicious internal applications after launching a new, “broader internal review process” after it disclosed those numbers to the parliamentary committee.
Two government sources, who were granted anonymity so they could freely discuss internal affairs, said the review came after pressure from National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier, who expressed serious skepticism about the low number of employees investigated at the time.
“As the CRA is responsible for administering the Income Tax Act and many COVID-19 benefits, the highest standard of employee conduct must be upheld. The CRA understands the importance of transparency and integrity,” Branch said.
“The CRA also takes seriously its obligation to ensure that both Canadians and its employees are aware that the CRA takes any form of wrongdoing very seriously.”
Launched in March 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, CERB paid $2,000 per month to eligible recipients. One of the key eligibility requirements was that recipients had to have lost their primary job or income because of the pandemic, making employed individuals largely ineligible unless they made less than $1,000 monthly income when they applied.
The program was ended in September 2020, and those still unemployed had their cases transferred to the employment insurance system.
In its statement, the agency noted that being employed by the CRA did not necessarily imply ineligibility for CERB, so it’s reviewing each file on a case-by-case basis.
“The CRA employs individuals with a variety of employment profiles such as temporary and student contracts; and, as such, individuals may have been eligible to receive the CERB at the time it was available,” reads the statement.
The CRA’s internal investigations are but a drop in bucket compared to the millions of verifications it will have to conduct to recoup the billions of dollars in COVID-19 benefit overpayments.
As of Jan. 19, the agency had warned nearly one million Canadians that they were clawing back some or all of their COVID-19 benefits, for a total of $4.2 billion as of that date, with more to come as the CRA and Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) conducted more post-payment verifications.
Auditor General Karen Hogan also warned in a report in December that both departments needed to look into up to $27 billion in payments she flagged as suspicious across a dozen pandemic benefits, most notably the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS).
But Hogan also found the the CRA and ESDC were not prepared for the daunting task of recouping all that money, lambasting the “lack of rigour” in their recovery plans and efforts that meant they would likely fail to recover “significant” amounts in overpayments.
The CRA is not the only federal department that was tasked with doling out pandemic benefits that has since had to fire employees who unduly applied for CERB.
In February, Mary Crescenzi, the head of ESDC integrity services, told MPs on the public accounts committee that her department had fired 49 workers who had received CERB during the pandemic.
“It was discovered that some of our employees had availed themselves … of CERB,” Crescenzi told MPs on the House public accounts committee. “Those individuals that did break the trust of the employer-employee relationship … have been terminated.”
At the time, she did not specify if the department was investigating additional workers.
Crescenzi also said that the employees had applied for the benefit outside of working hours and did not do it on government devices.