by Steven Threndyle 

It will soon be Labour Day and, as the vast majority of public health officials predicted back in March, COVID-19 is still going strong.

One thing that will end is the $2000 per month Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), a massive injection of federal money that was dispensed to just about any worker who lost their job or income from mid-March until mid-August.

Unlike Employment Insurance benefits that paid full-time employees must pay into, CERB arrived with remarkably few strings attached.

A fiscal snapshot released by the Government of Canada last week reported that when the pandemic began, roughly 2.9 million people in Canada were self-employed, equivalent to 15 percent of all workers.

By May, 40 percent of self-employed individuals said they had applied to CERB compared to 12 percent of private-sector employees and five percent in the public sector.

So, what comes next for Canadian content creators?

Most writers, photographers, videographers and designers are used to unpredictable income streams and changing work situations.

One editor I interviewed had been laid off even before COVID hit but was rehired a few weeks later, thanks to the government of Canada’s wage subsidy program which pays employers a whopping 75 percent of the salary of workers who would otherwise be unemployed.

“I don’t think we have any idea of how bad our economy will be until these subsidies end,” he says.

“CERB has been a lifesaver”

Like a trusty handhold on a craggy rock face, Canmore, Alberta, based freelance writer Lynn Martel says that “CERB has been a lifesaver. I didn’t apply right away though because I had money coming in in March and April, but in May my income dropped below $1000, and has dropped lower since then. For me, living in a region reliant on tourism – Canmore/Banff, in the Canadian Rockies — it’s been a double whammy.”

During the summer months, Martel supplements her writing income with work as a hiking guide, but that’s dried up with the ban on international travel.

Martel has also been let go from her part-time job as a columnist for the Rocky Mountain Outlook, a newspaper Martel has contributed to for almost two decades.

“As a part-timer, I was the first person to be cut,” she says. “While not a huge paycheck, losing what was my most reliable income for 18 years is a big thing. There’s also a bit of loss of identity, because for all those years I have written stories about people in the outdoor mountain community, and those have always been stories the full-time news reporters will never have the time or connections/contacts to write.”

COVID-19 travel restrictions also mean that Martel won’t be able to promote her upcoming book Stories of Ice, later this fall.

“I’m a great fan of old-fashioned book launches, with beer and wine, pictures up on a big screen, the energy of a live audience hopefully laughing at the right times, and then lining up to purchase a book while my wrist gets sore from signing so many copies in an evening,” she says. “Now, I have to learn how to create digital content—speaking and sharing my Stories of Ice while looking into my camera on a tripod rather than at a live audience.”

She also believes that her adventurous life experiences—dealing with changeable weather, staying found while on the trail and keeping calm in stressful situations gives her a leg up when it comes to navigating future challenges.

“As for being ‘back to normal’ by this time next year, as creatives and freelancers, do we ever really know where we’ll be?”

“The end of CERB is scary”

Chris Strome is one writer who knows where he does not want to be, and that’s where he is right now. Strome has worked for the past three years to build a freelance writing business aimed at servicing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs as they’re called) in trades, real estate and tourism.

COVID also threw a wrench into the works when he was forced into the role of educating and entertaining his twin daughters during the day—a scenario that most working parents have struggled mightily with.

“With my ability to work diminished, I was eager to take advantage of the CERB,” he says. “On top of that, we reduced expenses, got the provincial grant, deferred our mortgage and got the BC Hydro rebate. Our family has been able to get by, but we are on a razor’s edge. I fear for the long-term effects of COVID on publishing and many other industries. When things are at a standstill, there isn’t much money to go around.”

Strome is seriously considering a return to facilities management—he has a diploma from the renowned Ski Resort Operations and Management program at Selkirk College in Nelson—and fears post-CERB life.

“The end of CERB is scary. That money was a lifeline, it made things seem a bit more normal and it stimulated the economy,” he says. “Without that money in my bank account, I imagine that things will get even tighter and it will take a superhuman effort to return to normal.”

Some freelancers have had to get creative to make ends meet over the past few months.

John Geary pivoted from travel writing for newspapers, magazines and websites to managing social media sites and even hiring on as a part-time bookkeeper for a local accounting firm.

His clients continued ahead as “normal” throughout this pandemic. He adds, “Given the fact my income has not changed very much at all, I have not looked into CERB packages at all. I have been taking online courses during this time to add to the skills I already have.”

If there’s one thing the pandemic has confirmed about freelance writers, it’s that they know how to be flexible in the face of changing circumstances.

Steven Threndyle is a Vancouver-based freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter at @threndyleski.

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