Ontario says it will present a paid sick-leave program for essential workers in a matter of days, following repeated calls for it to act on the issue.
Public health experts, labour groups, and local officials have been calling for sick-leave support for much of the pandemic, arguing it would reduce COVID-19 spread in workplaces.
Health Minister Christine Elliott signaled Tuesday that the province is ready to relent and announce a program with speculation that it could arrive as early as today.
“It was clear yesterday (Monday) with the (federal) budget that it was not going to be improved by the federal government and so we are considering our alternatives now to deal with those gaps,” said Elliott.
Government House Leader Paul Calandra says the province hopes to address “gaps” in a federal benefit including eligibility, reducing wait times for receiving funds, the amount of funding available, and time off to get vaccinated.
“Obviously, it’s important for us that we get this out as soon as possible in light of the disappointment Monday,” he said.
“But we’re going to get it right, and over the next number of days, you’ll see us come forward with something.”
The Progressive Conservative government rejected opposition motions on paid sick leave earlier this week and said it was waiting to see if Monday’s federal budget included any changes to the program.
When the labour minister was asked for details, Monte McNaughton would only say, “I’m not going to speculate but I can tell workers out there we’ve got their backs, we’re going to get through this together.”
Mayor John Tory tells Breakfast Television he hopes that two issues with the current $500 a week federal program are addressed.
“What we are hoping the province will do is to come forward with something that, at least during the pandemic, will make sure people have a wage that will allow them to feed their families,” says Tory. “And secondly, that is instantaneously accessible.”
Opposition parties are calling on the government to legislate a minimum of 10 paid days of emergency leave for employees.
“I’m open to having a rebate program where the employer, not the employee, can apply for government funding to backstop it,” said Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner.
“It’s been completely negligent that the government has put its own ideology and politics ahead of the health and safety of workers.”
Calandra said the third wave, which has been pummeling Ontario, underscored the need for the province to act.
Hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care for COVID-19 have been surging across the province in recent weeks, with doctors noting that essential workers are often among the most serious cases.
There were 788 patients with COVID-related critical illness in intensive care units as of midnight on Wednesday, according to a daily report from Critical Care Services Ontario.
The Ford government had repeatedly said that the federal Canada Sickness Recovery Benefit, which retroactively pays employees if they miss 50 percent a workweek, was all employees needed.
However, Ontario’s Science Advisory Table now points towards a more comprehensive provincial paid sick days program as something that it believes is needed to get the pandemic under control.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says the government should have acted earlier and said the program needs to support all workers.
“They should have done this a year ago,” she said.
“This is something the experts have been advising for a very, very long time … How many people lost their lives because the government has been dragged kicking and screaming to a point where they may have to actually act?”
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the delayed action is evidence that Ford is not fit to lead the province.
“His dithering and delaying on paid sick leave, and virtually every other public health measure, is why he needs to resign,” Del Duca. “He’s the worst possible premier during a time when we need leadership most.”
Premier Doug Ford hasn’t been seen since Friday’s controversial news conference where he announced new COVID-19 lockdown measures.
Ford’s office says he’s been in isolation after coming into close contact with a staffer who tested positive for the virus.
With files from The Canadian Press