Bringing the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy to life: four weeks to make the impossible possible

While extreme measures were necessary to keep Canadians safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no denying that the lockdowns haven’t been easy. Particularly hurting were businesses, big and small, who saw their clientele disappear. Gary Graves, a project manager for the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) who worked on several COVID-related emergency subsidies, knew that government initiatives to keep businesses afloat could be the deciding factor between a business staying open or collapsing.

Knowing what was at stake, Gary, along with 300 others from teams all across the CRA, worked day and night in March 2020 to bring the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) program to Canadians. CEWS was a benefit designed to pay a portion of employee wages for businesses who saw their profit margins drop with the onset of the pandemic. Programs like this are usually implemented over a course of many months, but these unusual times called for unusual efforts. From conception to realization, the team was tasked with getting this emergency subsidy out as soon as possible to bring relief to affected businesses.

Of course, the team faced unprecedented obstacles along the way: namely, that this program needed to be created entirely out-of-office due to mandatory telework. That meant no board rooms to meet face-to-face, and seeing all information on a computer screen. All meetings were conducted through phone conferences, sometimes with hundreds of participants , ranging from call center representatives, to communications officials, to the technology experts who would work on the application code.

It was Gary’s job to bring the right people together; a task easier said than done. He had to gather the right subject matter experts, business partners and team members across the agency and beyond to turn an idea into reality, and to create a product that would bring relief to Canadians almost overnight.

Coding and releasing an application was only the first step. Thousands of CRA employees from various areas were reassigned, retrained and deployed in order to process the CEWS applications due to the sheer numbers that were anticipated within the first few weeks. All hands were on deck over a four-week period. Completing in four weeks what usually takes up to a year is difficult, exhausting work; in order to accomplish this, the team had to make sacrifices. “There were days where you didn’t eat dinner with, or see your family,” Gary said.

The launch of CEWS wasn’t the end for this team. To ease the application process for CEWS claimants, including providing the ability to adjust existing claims, work continued well into the next months, and still continues. The flood of stories about businesses and livelihoods saved by these measures were what kept the team going. Despite the long hours and the fatigue, knowing that his labour was helping Canadians was enough to inspire Gary to go the extra miles. As a project manager, Gary instilled this spirit within the rest of the team, too.

“It is a cause bigger than ourselves”, he said, “and I’m proud of being able to be a part of this. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my career.

This story first appeared as part of a series to celebrate Small Business Week, 2021. It marks a time when small and medium businesses fought so hard to manage the circumstances of the pandemic, and the employees of the Canada Revenue Agency came together to deliver the tools and services that would help these businesses during these challenging times.

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