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Building the CERB Helper

“sept2810” by morag.riddell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Last Friday, we released our CERB Helper app. It guides people through the rules about who’s eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit is emergency income replacement for the COVID-19 crisis. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of people have lost work and income. They may not ever have been in this situation before. They may not be eligible for traditional unemployment benefits (EI, or employment insurance). They might think that means they’re not eligible for CERB.

CERB is very different from EI. Unlike EI,  it doesn’t have qualifications based on hours worked. It’s not limited to people who were employed in a traditional job with an employer. That means it’s actually more reflective of the way a lot of people make their living in today’s world. Many people have a small business plus a part-time job, or a series of independent contractor gigs.

We hope the CERB Helper will help to make some people aware that CERB is there to help them.

The challenge of building this app suddenly amped up by a degree or two on Wednesday. We were almost ready to go when the government announced new rules, expanding the people who can get this benefit.  Under the old rules, CERB was there if you lost your job and had no income. But what if you had two jobs, and lost one – the main source of income – while still having a bit coming in? What if you did freelance work and still had a couple of jobs a month, making a tiny bit of income? It didn’t make sense that there was a sudden drop-off from full eligibility to nothing in those situations. Evidently, the government saw that too. CERB is now available for people whose work and income were hit by COVID-19, even if they’re still making something – as long as they make $1,000 or less a month.

To build these new rules into the app, we had to be fast and creative. Fortunately, Neota Logic’s drag-and-drop platform made it quite easy to adapt the structure we’d already created. We incorporated new rules and new information quickly and had the app ready to go two days after the new rules were announced.

The Government of Canada’s website and information about CERB are well-designed and user-friendly. The application site worked well even when it was visited by thousands of people on the first day applications opened. People are getting their money quickly. The application seems to be built to ensure that people get what they need, and not to throw obstacles in their way. There’s even a chatbot on the Canada Revenue Agency site to help people with their questions. As a law professor, I wish we saw more of this kind of approach in connecting people to law and justice services when they need them.

The CERB eligibility rules are quite simple.  (They are a bit less simple since the expansion last week.)

Our app is not designed primarily to help guide people through the application process. It’s just as fast and easy to do that directly on the government web site. The first page of the app encourages people to do just that. If you think you can apply, there’s a good chance that you can. So the best thing is to go straight to the application.

After that, our “intake” page is a set of common situations – students, freelancers, people who stopped going to work because they didn’t feel safe, etc.  If you’re using the app, you pick the situation that sounds like you.  Then you work through a few short questions to get a report with tips and information tailored to your answers. That includes information about how to apply for CERB if it’s available, an explanation of why it’s not available if it’s not, and other helpful resources. The landscape is constantly changing, so we are updating the app regularly.

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