‘The help is really useless’: Albertans frustrated by overwhelmed isolation benefit program

As of Monday afternoon, 29,000 Albertans have successfully applied for the province’s isolation support benefit, meant to tide people over until federal financial aid kicks in — but many others say they have been unable to get through.

John Michael Burke has been trying to apply online for the past six days.

“Then I click submit, it says the site’s been shut down, it’s at capacity and that’s all it’s been saying for days,” he said.

He’s tried calling as well, but can’t get through.

“It’s just frustrating. Very, very frustrating,” Burke said.

“The government should have known to set this up properly ahead of time, because they knew a lot of people were going to be applying for this.”

Burke said he feels fortunate he’ll be able to pay his bills next month, but he worries for those who cannot.

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“I can see some major issues coming up here on the 1st of April, because nobody can seem to get through.”

A statement from Tricia Velthuizen, press secretary to the minister of Service Alberta, said “The demand for emergency isolation supports remains extremely high and we apologize for the snags in the system which are leading to some delays.

“Service Alberta staff continue to work non-stop to address the technical issues that Albertans are encountering and part of that includes temporarily taking the system offline on an ongoing basis.”

The province also confirmed the program will continue until federal financial assistance is in place.

That’s not good enough for Burke.

“The help is really useless until then because you can’t get through to do anything,” he said.

The novel coronavirus, and the economic fallout associated with it, also came at a time when Albertans were already struggling.

“With the COVID crisis and the oil price and everything like that, people are starting to panic now about where they are in terms of their job situation,” explained MNP insolvency trustee, Zaki Alam.

MNP’s Consumer Debt Index survey found that at the start of March, before COVID-19 arrived in the province, 58 per cent of Albertans already felt they were within $200 of being unable to cover their debts each month.

Alam called the numbers staggering — noting Albertans were worse off than respondents in other provinces.

He said as an expert, his phone has been busy with stressed callers, unsure of what to do.

His advice? Do not go deeper into debt on credit cards or with payday loans — but rather take stock of your financial position and contact your pre-existing lenders.

“Reach out to the people you’re supposed to be paying — the landlord, the mortgage company, the credit card company — see if they will work with you. Most, under these circumstances, will work with individuals,” Alam said.

He also recommends making a household budget and calling a licensed insolvency trustee for advice.

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