No benefit applications were lost despite website error, minister says

Finance Minister Ernie Steeves says he's certain that applications reached a secure government office. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Finance Minister Ernie Steeves says he's certain that applications reached a secure government office. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

New Brunswick's minister of finance says he's confident that thousands of applications for the $300 workers' affordability benefit have not gone astray.

Ernie Steeves was responding to the Liberal opposition who revealed in question period that the French-language government website for mailing hard-copy application forms for the money featured the wrong postal address for three months.

"Now we understand why so few citizens have applied for the $300 New Brunswick workers' benefit," Edmundston-Madawaska Centre Liberal MLA Jean-Claude D'Amours said in question period.

"The government put the wrong address on the website on the French version. The wrong address!"

D'Amours said it was impossible to know how many applications went astray or where they ended up.

Steeves and Premier Blaine Higgs brushed off the questions in the legislature, with the minister arguing that "the money is getting out."

63,000 cheques sent so far

He said 88,000 applications had been received as of May 27 with 63,000 cheques sent by mail so far.

Higgs said the Liberals clearly had little ammunition to aim at the government, given the province's strong financial position.

"It's hard to find issues to make up and find problems with. It's hard for the opposition to find something they can really latch on to."

But Higgs himself acknowledged that "we expect more applications, and we're surprised there haven't been more."

The premier announced the benefit in his State of the Province speech in January, when he said he hoped most of the money would be in people's hands by March 31 to help them cope with the high cost of living.

The government estimated that 250,000 recipients would be eligible for the funding, but so far the uptake has fallen far short of that.

Wrong postal code listed for 3 months

D'Amours said that may be because of the error on the website, which first appeared Feb. 27 and was corrected only this week.

It featured a different postal code than the correct version on the English website.

The postal code that had been on the French site corresponded with government offices at Brookside Mall, on Fredericton's north side, including a payroll and benefits centre that is part of Service New Brunswick.

The English version has a postal code for downtown Fredericton that includes Chancery Place, the main government office building where the Department of Finance is located.

D'Amours called it "a security breach affecting an unknown number of people" because people had to include their dates of birth and their social insurance numbers with their applications.

But Steeves said he was certain that applications sent to either address had reached a secure government office.

"Yes, I'm very confident. There was no security breach. They went to one of two locations, which was either a post office box or the physical address, the building itself. … They have arrived."

D'Amours said however that a resident of the Madawaska area he spoke to Wednesday was told when they contacted the government support line that they should re-apply because their application was "lost."

He said that example could represent thousands of other cases.

Steeves hinted in the legislature that the government may extend the deadline for the benefit.

He said the deadline to apply is June 30 "for now" and said a promotional video was on the way to make more people aware of the funding.

"We're going to make it even easier for you to find a way through this application process," he said.