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Almost 1,500 fishermen owe $6.4m in COVID support overpayments: DFO appeal process not cutting it

DFO says 1,455 harvesters in this province owe $6.4 million in overpayments from the Fish Harvester Benefit and Grant Program, which provided financial support during the pandemic, and if there's an issue call Service Canada. It took three weeks to get that basic info from the feds at the other end of an unsigned DFO email, which is the problem in a nutshell. A good federal program, but poorly managed with zero one-on-one government contact.

DFO's $439.4-million Fish Harvester Benefit and Grant Program was announced in May 2020. Applicants had to show earnings from the 2018 or 2019 season, and prove they suffered at least a 25% loss during the 2020 pandemic season. To date, $162 million has been spent — 37% of the overall budget.



Three separate federal departments — DFO, Service Canada, and the Canada Revenue Agency — are involved in the COVID support program for enterprise owners and crews, but no one department seems to be taking charge.


DFO referred SEA-NL questions about the program to this email address: DFO.FHBGP-PPSP.MPO@dfo-mpo.gc.ca


An unsigned response from the "Fish Harvester Benefit and Grant Program" three weeks later (today, March 8th) referred harvesters to Service Canada (at 1-833-674-8283), and explained how Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) tax information was used to calculate overpayments.


Bureaucracy is hard enough to deal with in one government department — three departments makes for one hell of a tangle.


The program was divided into two parts: the benefit portion covered 75% of income losses in 2020 compared to 2019 and 2018, with qualifying harvesters receiving up to $10,164; and a non-repayable grant of up to $10,000 for owner-operators who suffered measurable losses.


COMMUNICATIONS HAVE BEEN HORRIBLE


The appeal process under the grant and benefit program was not clear, and via email only.


That message came directly from the offices of federal MPs in the province who dealt with complaints from harvesters.


Some harvesters say they were not informed why they owe the amounts, or aware of the appeal process.


Others thought their MPs were handling their cases. Still more say DFO made a clear mistake in their cases, but they had been having a hard time getting through to anyone.


In response to questions from SEA-NL, these answers were provided:


• Individuals can contact Service Canada at 1-833-674-8283 to find out more about the status of their files.


• "The program" has waived interest charges on overpayments until March 31, 2023. "Reminder outreach" is underway.


• Once an appeal of an overpayment was launched via Service Canada, the "Program" asked harvesters to supply tax information, which the "Program" reviewed before making a decision on the appeal.


• "The Program" noted cases of overpayments included harvesters who said they were self employed, but later found (through their CRA information) to be employees.


 Other examples of overpayments included harvesters whose losses were not large enough to qualify for help, and income losses recorded in CRA tax information that were less than the amount forecasted at the time of application.


To the average harvester, the ins and outs of the program were not clear from the get-go, but not having an informed government official to speak to details of an individual case is just poor service.


While I'm at it, DFO relies too heavily on its National Online Licensing System (NOLS) — and not enough on personal, one-on-one interaction with harvesters.


But then that's to be expected from a department whose provincial headquarters is a gated fortress in the hills of east end St. John's.


Once again, call Service Canada directly at 1-833-674-8283 for the status of your individual file.


If you're still having a hard time contact me directly at sea-nl@outlook.com


Ryan Cleary, Executive Director, SEA-NL Seaward Enterprises Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (SEA-NL) is a professional, non-profit organization that serves as the distinct voice for licensed, independent owner-operator inshore fish harvesters. Visit sea-nl.ca to join.

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