Ontario Premier Doug Ford promised the province “one of the best” paid sick day programs in North America after he faced unrelenting public pressure to do something.
The Ontario legislature officially approved Thursday a temporary paid sick leave program that would provide full-time and part-time workers up to $200 per day for up to three days.
The Ontario COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Benefit is retroactive from April 19 and will extend to Sept. 25. The province is partnering with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to deliver the program and reimburse employers.
But the NDP and the Liberals, along with essential front-line workers, have criticized Ford for his government’s pandemic response. They urged the province to create paid sick days to in part stem the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.
Health care workers staged a protest outside of Queens Park on April 25 demanding every worker in Ontario get 10 paid sick days, vaccinations for all essential workers, and a pandemic response that focuses on public health rather than policing.
The Ontario government rejected their requests, along with separate private members bills tabled by the NDP and the Liberals that would have allowed for paid sick days.
In addition to the new program, the province reached out to Ottawa to increase the federal sick leave CRSB payments to $1,000 from $500 per week. The federal government has not yet responded.
“It is a tremendously positive step that the federal government has signalled their willingness to continue discussions on the CRSB,” Monte McNaughton, the Ontario Minister of Labour, Training, and Skills Development said in a press conference on April 28.
“Now we can fix the outstanding gap in the federal program so workers can get immediate support and can stay home when needed,” he said.
The CRSB provides income support to people who cannot work due to self-isolation or sick due to COVID-19. The program is available to unemployed or self-employed individuals, and those eligible can receive $500 for one week. If the individual’s illness worsens, they would need to apply the following week.
However, advocates argue three sick paid isn’t enough, and it still doesn’t include a long-term plan.
In a report from the Decent Work and Health Network, advocates say rather than closing the gap in paid sick days during the pandemic, governments across Canada have responded by introducing unpaid, temporary leaves that are restricted to COVID-related reasons.
“Without effective paid sick leave legislation, too many workers are forced to choose between protecting public health by staying home and going to work sick to support themselves and their families,” the report said. “Paid sick days are essential protection for all workers both during a pandemic and on a permanent basis to protect against other infectious illnesses like influenza.”
Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) President Warren (Smokey) Thomas wrote an open letter to Doug Ford on April 28, saying an obvious solution to the COVID-19 crisis is paid sick days.
Thomas outlined a “simple, seamless and speedy” delivered sick program.
“When a worker takes paid sick days at work, they should be automatically registered for federal benefits,” Thomas said. “If the sick worker’s illness or isolation period extends past a few days, a buffed-up Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit could start to flow from the feds for the longer term.”
NDP leader Andrea Howarth said three days is still not enough. Individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19 as even getting the test and waiting for the results can take more than three days.
“Three days of paid sick days will not cut it,” she said.
Howarth raised concerns workers may not be able to self-isolate for the required amount of time if exposed to the COVID-19.
“I don’t know where the premier thinks this is the best program in North America. It certainly is not,” she said.
While the opposition parties supported the COVID-19 Putting Workers First Act, they called on Ford and his government to increase the support from three to ten days, supporting the advice from public health experts.
“The length of time it takes for an individual to get tested, to get in the clear, to isolate potentially, all of this is how we landed on the number 10,” said Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca in a press conference on April 29.