Accountant petitions CRA to extend tax deadlines amid strike

There are about 39,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers on strike. Of them, 1,400 have been deemed essential workers. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
There are about 39,000 Canada Revenue Agency workers on strike. Of them, 1,400 have been deemed essential workers. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)

With the deadline for Canadians to file their taxes just days away, some accountants are worried that the public servants' strike could cause low-income taxpayers to miss out on filing and securing access to the benefits they rely on.

The strike of more than 35,000 Canada Revenue Agency employees has made it much more difficult to reach out to government experts, with some services suspended and others seeing prolonged delays.

"People don't have three or four hours in their day to sit there and wait on the CRA to answer their phone calls," said Eric Saumure, a chartered accountant with Zenbooks.

"The CRA does have a mandate to help Canadians file their taxes appropriately, and the CRA agents just aren't there to help."

Saumure was "absolutely surprised" when Minister of Revenue Diane Lebouthillier announced last week that the tax deadline will not change because of the strike, especially since the CRA was able to extend such allowances at the start of the pandemic.

"There's gonna be penalties. There's gonna be interest. Canadians just don't have the money for additional penalties. They barely have enough to pay the taxes that that the government is putting in place."

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

'Agents aren't there to support them'

Saumure channelled that frustration into a petition that urges the government to extend its deadline to June 15, when those who are self-employed are required to file their returns.

By late Monday, it was nearing 25,000 signatures.

"This is really blowing up," he said, pointing to complications with CERB repayments and new tax credits that some people might need clarification on. "And the agents aren't there to support them."

Marc d'Orgeville, the executive director of Ottawa's EBO Financial Education Centre, supports the petition's goal, but he wants more: an assurance that people who do not file their taxes on time will continue to have access to crucial benefits.

"Benefits are set for the year and they start in July based on the taxes you're going to file now for the previous year," he explained. "One aspect, which is critical for low income Canadians is to file taxes to get their benefits."

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Benefits can make up half a person's income

The government agency has encouraged people to file online, so their returns can be processed automatically. But Saumure and d'Orgeville said that's not easy for everyone.

"For lots of vulnerable and low-income Canadian, they don't have the skills or they have a locked account with CRA and they cannot get that information and they would not be able to file taxes without that," d'Orgeville said.

His organization runs a tax clinic to help people in this situation. Appointments from now to deadline day are full, but clients can still book one for a late filing.

"If you file in May, you're probably OK to get your benefit on time in July. If you file in June, you're probably too late. So we're going to try to to submit as many taxes as possible for people who need our help."

While it may not be time to panic just yet, d'Orgeville underscored that this situation is stressful.

"It can be 50 per cent of their income which disappears in July, if you take a family with four children working or on social assistance," he said. "If you take a senior who's receiving the Guaranteed Income Supplement, this can also be 50 per cent."

Julie Ireton/CBC
Julie Ireton/CBC

Union also pushing for deadline extension

Marc Brière, the national president of the Union of Taxation Employees — which is a subcomponent of PSAC and represents the CRA workers on strike — said he understands the situation is frustrating for people, and wants the Canada Revenue Agency to resolve the issue.

"I don't understand the minister's and the government's decision to not postpone the filing season," he said. "I just don't get it. I think they will have to."

He also said workers would much rather be on the phone lines than the picket lines, especially at a time when the CRA typically gets around 1,000,000 calls a week.

But he said timing the strike in this way allows the union "to apply pressure."

"I'm asking you, if we would not be in that position, would the government care or would we still be without a contract for the next two to three years?"

CRA spokesperson Adam Blondin responded to the filing concerns in a statement which reiterated the government's intention to keep the current deadline in place.

"The CRA encourages Canadians to file on time in order to continue to receive the benefits and credits they are entitled to and to avoid late filing penalties," he wrote. "However, when circumstances beyond a Canadian's control prevent them from meeting their tax obligations, the CRA may grant relief from penalty or interest."

The promise of a case-by-case review will provide little comfort to worried taxpayers, Saumure said.

"I think that's a default answer," he explained. "We don't suspect that every Canadian will be eligible."