Financial Literacy

Are employed international students eligible for EI during COVID-19?

By: Zandile Chiwanza on April 3, 2020
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The outbreak of COVID-19 is having a significant impact on everyone. Nearly 1.5 million Canadian workers have applied for employment insurance (EI) in the last week. In response, the federal government unveiled the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which includes a taxable benefit of $2,000 a month for up to four months.

But with each update to the government’s income support plans, there’s not much clarity around how these benefits apply to those who live, work, and study in Canada but aren’t permanent residents or citizens — also referred to as foreign workers.

A foreign worker has to apply to be allowed to work in Canada and has a valid permit. According to Faith Oladapo, an immigration consultant at FTO Immigration Services, international students fall under this definition.

Rikita Dubey, an international student at Sheridan College pleaded with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a series of tweets: “I have been following all your press conferences. Your efforts are amazing to support your citizens in these tough times. However, as an international student who cannot travel home any sooner, I wonder where to seek help.”

During the semester, international students are limited to working 20 hours a week, however, during scheduled breaks, they’re free to work fulltime. There’s a stereotype that international students are wealthy and while it’s true for some, students such as Dubey rely on part-time work to fund living expenses and sometimes a portion of their studies. Dubey, who is close to completing her post-graduate program, lost her job last week and said it will now be difficult to pay rent and afford food.

Are foreign workers eligible for EI?

Under normal circumstances, there are general requirements to qualify for EI. Foreign workers are eligible to receive EI benefits during the duration of their work permit if they are unemployed and meet eligibility criteria, including having worked a sufficient number of hours. 

Oladapo suggests that foreign workers who have lost their job due to the new coronavirus check if they meet the requirements for CERB, and don’t assume they aren’t eligible to apply for EI.

“The thing with this situation is things keep changing,” Oladapo says. For now, the government hasn't announced any restrictions on foreign workers. 

As a former international student who faced financial hardship, I know that resources are slim. So if you aren’t eligible for EI, here are some tips to help you stay afloat:

File your taxes

The tax return filing deadline date has been pushed from April 30 to June 1 due to the new coronavirus crisis. Again, if you’re a taxpaying resident and are expecting a refund but haven’t filed your taxes, do so as soon as possible for some extra cash. 

According to the Canada Revenue Agency’s website, the government is proposing to provide a one-time special payment by early May through the Goods and Services Tax Credit (GSTC).

The average addition to income for those eligible for this measure will be close to $400 for single individuals.

If you haven’t already, sign up for a direct deposit from the CRA so that you don’t have to wait around for a cheque in the mail.

Leverage your debt with care

The reality is some people will have to take on new debt in order to survive until things get better, says Enoch Omololu, a personal finance expert who created the blog Savvy New Canadians.

“If you have a credit card, you can spend within your credit limit and plan to pay off your balance within the 21-day grace period to avoid interest fees,” he says. “If at all possible, you should keep your credit utilization rate below 30%.”

Most student credit cards come with no or low fees but it won’t hurt to check with your bank to make sure you have the lowest interest rate available to you.

Avoid high-interest debt such as payday loans. Although they’re much easier to access and don’t report to credit bureaus, that debt cycle can be predatory and difficult to come out of. If it comes to that, know the risks and prepare to pay those balances off as soon as you can.

Applying to essential service jobs

For those willing to work on the frontlines of the pandemic, Omololu suggests focusing on finding jobs in those areas that are seeing a surge in demand or are deemed “essential services” by the provincial government, as a way to make extra money.

For example, grocery stores have ramped up hiring in response to the crisis.

“If you're working already, part-time work, or in an essential service, this is a good time to pick up extra shifts here and there,” he says.

Peer-to-peer lending

Toward the end of my undergraduate degree, I crowdfunded through close friends to pay for my tuition. The agreement was I would pay back the money with no interest once I got back on my feet. I’ve had good experiences with peer-to-peer lending when times were hard, but it can get messy. 

When lending someone money, there are some do’s and don’ts to consider that we outlined in a blog post last year, such as:

  • Are you in a position to offer financial support?
  • Have the terms of repayment been made clear?
  • Should you be concerned about what the money will be used for?
  • What about charging interest? 
  • If you don’t get paid back, should you just let it go?

“International money transfers have not been impacted by covid-19 you can source funds from overseas (home), if possible,” Omololu adds.

Reach out for help

With all the chaos due to the new coronavirus, it feels like time has paused indefinitely. Bills, however, are still very much due. If you’ve cut all excess spending, rearranged and reprioritized your budgeting, and still can’t make ends meet, it’s time to ask for help. 

You can reach out to your providers, including cell phone, credit card, and insurance companies, to ask if you can get your bills cut or paused without penalty.

If you’re a renter, you also have the right to reach out to your landlord to negotiate an arrangement for payments. Some landlords are willing to work with tenants to find solutions. You won’t know unless you try. 

In addition, the banks have been communicating that there will be assistance to help clients facing financial hardship. Get in touch with them as soon as possible. The last thing you want to do is miss payments without communicating. This can hurt your credit score and overall financial health.

Suffering in silence is not the answer. Connect with your embassy, international student offices and organizations for newcomers and migrant workers. Your community may be in the position to help out. At the end of the day, this is a pandemic affecting people all over the world.