“My biggest fear is losing my apartment and being priced out of the city”: 10 Torontonians on what they’re going to do now that CERB has ended
For the past six months, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit has provided a monthly $2,000 lifeline for restaurant workers, musicians, performers, retail associates and countless others whose jobs were eliminated when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The stimulus was hardly enough for a spending spree, but it allowed many workers to scrape by for months without reliable income. After being extended twice, the program will finally come to an end on October 3, and eligible workers will transition onto EI, which will accommodate 400,000 more Canadians than it did pre-pandemic. We spoke with 10 Torontonians about what they’re going to do now that the cheques have stopped coming.
Sofie Mikhaylova, DJ
“Before the pandemic, I was a full-time DJ, spinning mostly techno. I also run my own record label, Biblioteka Records, focused on experimental electronic music, and I worked part-time at a nightclub two nights a week. After March 13, my income immediately dropped to zero, so I applied for CERB. An income of $2,000 per month was honestly pretty low compared to my prior pay, but it was still workable. I share an affordable apartment with my partner, and my half of all regular expenses—rent, insurance, Internet—comes to $1,000. However, I still have to pay for my phone bill, my monthly website fees and groceries. I’ve also been putting away around $300 from each CERB cheque for taxes next year. I’m not spending money on Uber anymore, obviously, so things balanced out in the beginning.
“I’m extremely stressed about money, and I’m trying to be more careful with what I spend on food and non-essentials. I did spend a bit of money on new music to play for livestream DJ shows during the pandemic. I have some savings but they won’t last long, and I don’t want to have to give up my apartment and move back in with my parents, because my partner and I only pay $1,800 in rent, and I’m never going to find a deal like this again. Money is a big concern and it’s getting bigger, but I have faith in myself to get by.
“I’m open to working a job, but I’m still afraid of contracting Covid. I’ve applied for the EI benefit, so I hope that pans out. I’ve given up on the idea that live performances will come back, and I’m looking for other ways to stay engaged with music. I try not to worry too much; meditation helps. I’ve received some freelance opportunities here and there, and I hope to keep finding and creating more, especially as things remain uncertain. I’m a resilient person and I always have been.”
David Ito, professional fire performer and fencing instructor
“As a performer, a lot of my work requires big crowds. I do fire performances at large public gatherings: weddings, Canada Day celebrations, corporate parties, festivals like Toronto Pride. Last year I travelled around rural Ontario performing at county fairs, like the Bradford West Gwillimbury Carrot Festival. A lot of events I would normally work this year were simply cancelled because of Covid. In the months I haven’t been able to work, CERB has allowed me to pay rent, buy groceries and pay my bills—exactly what it was meant to do. I’m saving some money from not eating out, which I’m putting aside for taxes next year.
“The end of CERB has been a huge source of anxiety for me, as large public gatherings will not be allowed any time soon. The fencing school where I teach reopened at the beginning of September, although I’m not working as many hours I did pre-pandemic. I hope to transition onto EI but I’m unsure if I qualify because I’m mostly self-employed. I have some savings, which will help me a few months, but by the end of the year, all my savings will be gone.
“I was able to resume some performances in a limited capacity during Stage 3, but nowhere near enough to transition off assistance. The only work I’m qualified to do is in the service sector, and frankly, I’d rather just serve in the military. Looking toward the future, I’ve started an application with the Canadian Armed Forces.”
Sophy Romvari, filmmaker
“I’ve been self-employed for most of my life, and I’ve always had to pull my income from a variety of places. First and foremost, I’m a filmmaker, but I’ve developed other skills like video editing and graphic design to help keep me afloat. At the end of January, I graduated with my master’s from York. I was just wrapping my head around my post-graduate life, working on a few projects. I was hoping to finally establish my business as a trailer editor so I’d have a more consistent income and be able to focus on my filmmaking. I was gearing up to direct a film in Vancouver, which is on hiatus until it can be done safely, as well as another project I am producing for a friend. Now, everything is on pause. Without CERB, I would absolutely not be able to afford my rent—and that’s where my entire monthly cheque is going. My income has always fluctuated, so CERB has been the most consistent income I’ve ever had.
“Any artist who works in the gig economy knows that some months are bad, some are good. But living expenses in Toronto are becoming unmanageable, even when there’s no pandemic. I fear my industry won’t be going back to normal anytime soon, and that I won’t be able to pick up where I left off. Things will definitely be difficult on my path as a filmmaker, especially if the very act of shooting continues to be hard to do safely. Like many others, I simply won’t be able to afford to stay in Toronto long-term under these circumstances.
“I don’t plan to apply for EI at the moment. As I understand it, I’m not eligible as a gig worker, even though my industry is still flatlining. But I’m doing my best to stay productive. Just as CERB was winding down, I was lucky enough to receive a development grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. I will be subsisting on that while I take on research and development for a project. Video editing work is slowly coming back into the picture too.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I would have gone into massive amounts of debt if CERB had not been an option for me. Given that it was only enough to cover my rent and other modest basic needs, I can’t imagine what I would have done without it.”
Shameem Nasrabadi, food service and non-profit worker
“In March, I was working two jobs: night shifts at a local specialty fast food restaurant as well as field manager for a non-profit canvassing team. Both jobs ended immediately at the start of the pandemic. The non-profit paid staff out an additional two weeks at minimum hours with no commission (we usually make 45 per cent commission on donations over quota, which is a substantial amount of our pay). The food place didn’t give us anything.
“I asked my landlord for a rent reduction due to my reduced income, but he only offered the option for a deferral, which might help me out now but would increase rent payments post-pandemic. I decided to withhold rent because the job market is so uncertain and it’s unsafe to go back to work in the service industry, especially now that the second wave is beginning and looking worse than the first. My landlord served me with an N4 eviction notice for non-payment of rent a few months ago. I ignored it. We have not communicated about the rent since, since he was absolutely unwilling to concede even a single dollar’s reduction. I don’t know if he has filed for a hearing at the Landlord and Tenant Board or not.
“Because CERB may be all the money I have available to me for an indefinite amount of time, I’ve been very careful with my spending. I’ve been fare evading on the TTC, eating cheap filler foods and refraining from recreational expenses. The only non-food items I’ve bought since the beginning of the pandemic are a face mask and a copy of the new Animal Crossing.
“I’ve just applied for EI. I don’t feel good about it, because it requires applicants to search actively for work. More people working will inevitably lead to more Covid infections, regardless of half-measures implemented by provincial or federal governments. I’d much prefer they allow everyone to stay home for a while by implementing pauses and cancellations on debt payments and replacing lost wages. Right now, my future is a big question mark. The fast food restaurant I worked at was repossessed by the landlord, and the canvassing job remains uncertain.”
Chelsea McBride, musician
“I’m a saxophonist/woodwind doubler and composer. I run a six piece pop-jazz group called Chelsea and the Cityscape, as well as a trio called the Chelsea McBride Group and a 19-piece big band called Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night School. I also teach music, write grants and do admin work, like concert production.
“In the span of three days at the start of the pandemic, I lost three months’ worth of gigs—no pay, in some cases not even much of an apology. I usually earn anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 per year, and now I’ve lost all my gigs for 2020, except for one livestream performance. I have some savings, but I had debt from past projects and some unplanned moves across town. So CERB has been a huge lifesaver. It’s enough to pay my $850 rent, buy groceries, pay for my instrument supplies and medications, pay the minimums on my debt and still have enough left over for toiletries or a take-out order. I’m not an extravagant person. I tend to splurge on fancy chocolate or a nice bottle of scotch.
“The EI benefit looks like it’ll help, but there are so many exceptions and qualifiers that it’s hard to say. Running out of money isn’t an option, because my family is far away and at high-risk for Covid, so I don’t want to go back home and put them in danger. And like a lot of arts workers, I’m living in a place that just raised the rent, with high fixed costs, and I have basically nowhere to go if I run out of money.
“I’m one of the lucky ones, though. I have been doing grant writing and editing and distance recording and teaching a little bit online. The work I have has kept me comfortably under the CERB cap of $1,000 per month.
“I have been job hunting since CERB was supposed to end the first time, and nothing has come up that suits my skill set. The bigger issue I’ve started to see is that performances post-pandemic pay less. They’re also much higher risk, and often staff in the venues or other performers are not following public health guidelines.
“When I think about the future, I know one thing for sure: I love my work, and even if this means I’ll have to revamp my career, I don’t plan on leaving the industry. It’s more about adapting to the new normal and finding a new path forward. I’m not going to quit pursuing my life’s passion—and my career—because of a pandemic, or because of a lack of government aid.”
Uly Aiello, personal trainer
“I train people in one-on-one sessions out of a gym I’ve installed in the first floor of my home. I have an assisted pull-up/dip station, a leg press/hack squat machine, a Smith Machine and multi-pulley cable station, as well as plenty of free weights, steppers and even a punching bag to keep things interesting. I train primarily middle-aged and older populations, and they come to me anywhere from once to three times per week. And because of the type of training I provide, I often have to physically touch my clients in order to ensure maximum benefits and that they don’t injure themselves. When Covid-19 hit in March, I had one client cancel at first. Within a few days, I no longer had any work.
“People have asked me if I could post how-to videos or do Zoom, but I can’t do this and still be a responsible trainer—the risk of injury is too high. Because of CERB, my wife, who’s a freelance writer, and I can pay our bills without cashing in our RRSPs. We need some significant repairs in our home that we were going to do this year, but now we can’t, and we’re worried about damage. We also have to make sure any money we do make, including CERB, goes directly to bills. It’s like a frozen state right now. How are we supposed to live like this? I’m worried about the future. A lot. But I think we’ll be okay because my wife has really picked up the slack. She’s working so hard.
“I’m not sure I will—or even can—apply for EI. It’s so complicated right now, and as a self-employed person, I’m not sure if I’m eligible. I am trying to build my client list back up, but unfortunately, workouts tend to be a low priority in people’s budget lists. I’m worried for my clients’ health; some of them struggle to stay healthy and keep fit without me. I’m also a very social person, and I loved spending that hour with my clients, Now, I don’t see anyone and I’m really lonely, even with my wife around. Just getting to the end of the day is hard. But I did make my wife a desk out of scrap wood in our shed, which was cool.”
Photo by Levana Mattacchione
Julie Riemersma, photographer
“I graduated from Humber College in 2012 and have been working as a fashion, portrait and event photographer ever since. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was accepted into the Enterprise Toronto Female Founders Program, where I launched a series of workshops aimed at helping LGBTQ, BIPOC and female-identifying entrepreneurs take better pictures for their businesses. I was able to use the grant I received for the Enterprise program to put down four months of rent on a studio/co-working space on Geary Avenue, and it’s been amazing for my business. If I hadn’t had CERB, I would have either had to shoot against the health guidelines, or temporarily shut down so I could get a minimum-wage job, which would have left my business in a much weaker position than it is now.
“CERB has been a lifesaver because it took away what would otherwise be overwhelming stress. I only pay $850 in rent for my studio apartment, and my landlords were kind enough to give the whole building free rent in May without being asked. My business plan for the upcoming months is uncertain. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep doing photography safely, and events are still off the table. With the weather getting colder, my studio will be the only option for portrait and fashion work. Instead I’m focusing on other things, teaching and promoting my photography education course on Skillshare. I’m identifying what kind of photography small businesses will need if we get shut down again. For example, I’ve launched art digitization services, so artists can print their work on T-shirts, bags or posters. I’m also launching a bespoke stock photography service, so that small businesses can purchase backgrounds and other images that fit with their brand’s aesthetic.
“I’m not able to apply for the new EI program since I freelance. I have to wait for the Canada Recovery Benefit, and the details of that program haven’t been released yet. I’ve been working hard to secure some shoots in October, and I have enough money saved to survive the next few months. My biggest fear is losing my apartment and being priced out of the city.”
Kathryn Damianadis, early childhood educator
“I run a small group preschool providing a morning program to five children at a time. Normally I close for March Break, but this year I had planned to run a camp for some extra income. That obviously didn’t happen. When the government announced schools would close for three weeks in March, I complied. None of the parents would have been comfortable sending their children anyway. But I was in a state of panic about money. I couldn’t sleep. I cried all the time, and I suffer from anxiety, so I was a mess. I honestly didn’t know how I would afford groceries, or how I would continue paying my $1,600 monthly mortgage or my $900 rent on the preschool with no income.
“In April, I made the difficult decision to shut down my school. I packed up 10 years of stuff and memories, which was hard on me emotionally. Opening the school was a huge dream, and I couldn’t believe I lost it all overnight. CERB wasn’t a lot of money and it’s taxable, so it does not cover all my bills, but it was still a huge relief.
“In September, I was able to reopen my preschool in a new location, just a few blocks away from the old one. I split the space with a friend who runs an after-school art program for kids, and my portion of rent is $550. So far it is going well, but there’s so much cleaning and sanitizing that needs to get done, and it adds extra time and cost. I’ve already had kids stay home because of runny noses. Public health advised me that children need to be symptom-free for 24 hours before they’re allowed back at the school. I’m doing everything I can to be safe but I still worry every day that I’ll have to shut down again.”
Jasmine Lee, restaurant server
“I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 13. I started off in Whitby as a bus girl at a family-run establishment, then moved into a role as a hostess. Later, I began to serve and bartend. My mother, sisters and cousins all worked as at the same place. It’s also where I met my partner, who is a chef. We moved to Toronto together and lived there for nine years. Then, in 2019, we moved back to Whitby so we could purchase our first home. My partner continued to commute into the city to work in his chef job, and I took a position closer to home at another establishment run by the same people who employed me when I was a teenager.
“My restaurant shut down in mid-March, and my partner’s shut down a week later. We were under a lot of stress, worrying that we may not be able to pay our mortgage or pay off any debt or put any savings aside for the foreseeable future. Once we received our first CERB payments, some of that feeling went away. Luckily we were able to cover our mortgage—it’s about $2,000 per month—plus utilities and groceries, with both of our payments coming on alternating weeks.
“This time of uncertainty has not been easy for us. We recently got engaged and still hope to get married in August 2021, but those plans may have to be put on hold if we’re not able to make the same income as before.
“My partner and I both went back to work in mid-June. My restaurant has been quite busy—the patio has 78 seats total, and the majority are under awnings and overhangs so we can still serve when the weather isn’t great. The restaurant is pretty large, so we can still accommodate lot of guests, but our holiday season is not going to be nearly as lucrative as it once was. My partner and I do not plan to go onto EI unless it’s absolutely necessary. In the time I’ve been back to work I’ve been able to save a bit of money so we could rely on that in the event of another lockdown.
“We are both very happy to be off CERB and making our own income again. Being on CERB felt as though we were teenagers with an allowance, which was frustrating for both of us. It was especially hard because we just purchased our first home and had so many renovation plans. We are finally looking forward to the future again.”
Chrysanthi Zora Michaelides, arts entrepreneur
“I wear many hats. I’m an entrepreneur in the arts, media and culture industries through my companies, Synergy In Action, and Conscious Grooves ‘N Reels Productions. I also work as an actor, producer, writer, director and designer in films, and as a producer for concerts, festivals and special events. The industries I work in are primarily seasonal, going from zero to 100 and then back to zero again, depending on the time of year. The piecemeal nature of my work means I have to constantly keep my feelers on and be on the lookout for what will come next. I literally cannot afford to stop. By March 2020, I had most of the year planned out. I was scheduled to work on six films and two event-marketing programs, which were going to keep me busy through the end of September. Then the pandemic hit and all of my projects were tabled indefinitely.
“CERB threw me a lifeline. To live within the monthly stipend I’ve had to make concessions and be crafty with budgeting. I began paying instalments on my bills each month, rather than paying them outright. Since I was not working, I had little need for Wi-Fi, so I added a $20 top-up on my cellphone’s data plan and hotspotted my laptop on an as-needed basis when job hunting, or when I wanted to stream a movie or send documents.
“Months later and the arts, culture and media industries are still not able to safely reconvene. There is concern within our industry on how to safely get back to work. Film sets require many hands on deck, and we work in close proximity and in tight quarters. We operate in an environment where if one person on set gets a cold, it spreads to the entire cast and crew within days. Knowing that, the question on everyone’s mind now is how to safely navigate around corona without compromising the production or our health.
“On the bright side—and there is always a bright side—one of the feature films I worked on as a production designer pre-pandemic is rewriting scenes to accommodate the new industry-safety protocols. The hope is to resume production before end of this year. More recently, I was approached to co-develop and co-write a children’s television series pilot, and soon enough I will be knocking on broadcasters’ doors.
“In the interim, I have little option but to transition to EI in an effort to make ends meet, while I take on work projects as they come. This is a mere blip in time, and we shall overcome.”