Ontario is facing increasing pressure to offer more than its three temporary subsidized COVID-19 sick days for workers as medical experts and labour advocates warn of another resurgence of the virus in the fall.
The province’s COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Benefit, which offers up to $200 a day for three sick days and allows employers to recoup the cost from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, is currently set to expire July 31.
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton, renamed to his post last week by Premier Doug Ford after the re-election of the Progressive Conservative government earlier this month, has pledged that the program would be extended as long as COVID-19 exists in the province.
The government does not need to pass new legislation to extend the existing sick day program. It can issue an order approved by cabinet to change its expiry date, and has done so previously. Mr. Ford’s new cabinet could meet as early as this week.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail after his swearing-in ceremony on Friday, Mr. McNaughton said a decision on sick days was imminent.
“I will have more to say very soon on this,” Mr. McNaughton said. “I have been very clear that I want to ensure that sick days are in place throughout the pandemic.”
In February, Mr. McNaughton was unequivocal that the program would be extended “as long COVID-19 exists in Ontario.”
But many advocates are calling on the government to do much more than extend its current three-day plan. The issue could be a test for the Ford government, which boasted of new pro-worker policies such as reversing its opposition to a hike in the minimum wage with a “Working for Workers” slogan in the recent election campaign.
Ontario’s sick days are meant to make it possible for low-wage workers to afford to self-isolate if they are ill. But Ontario’s three days do not cover the five-day isolation period now recommended for those infected with COVID-19. And a federal program that allowed workers to apply for up to $450 for missing a week of work for reasons related to COVID-19 expired last month.
Many union leaders and health care groups are calling for a larger, permanent number of minimum sick days, paid for by employers instead of the government.
Ottawa is moving ahead with a plan to grant 10 employer-paid sick days to workers in federally regulated industries, such as banks and telecom companies. Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan is set to meet with his provincial and territorial counterparts on Tuesday as he seeks to develop a “national action plan” on paid sick leave.
Those federal rules will only cover a sliver of the country’s workers, as most provinces have no legally mandated minimum sick days. B.C., prompted by the pandemic, now requires five employer-paid sick days, starting this year.
Other provinces brought in unpaid leave provisions during COVID-19, with Nova Scotia, Manitoba and P.E.I. offering temporary paid pandemic sick days in programs that have since ended. Before the pandemic, Quebec already required two minimum paid sick days; P.E.I. had one.
Last week, the Decent Work and Health Network, an advocacy group, released an open letter signed by 160 health care workers, epidemiologists and union leaders calling on the Ontario government to match Ottawa and bring in 10 paid sick days that would cover all illnesses, not just COVID-19.
Niagara Region Medical Officer of Health Mustafa Hirji says a lack of sick days earlier in the pandemic helped turn some workplaces in his area, including restaurants and even some long-term care homes, into COVID-19 hot spots.
“The impact of COVID is unequal. Communities that are lower income, more minorities et cetera are going to have more spread of infection,” he said. “And that is probably party due to the lack of paid sick days for those populations.”
Toronto’s city council and board of health have previously called for five permanent sick days.
Paul Roumeliotis, medical officer of health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, said Ontario’s current sick day plan is one of few public-health measures that remains and should be renewed.
“In the face of an unknown fall, I think we may get an increase in cases and we may get increased need for this support of people staying home,” he said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
For much of the pandemic, the issue has been a source of public debate in Ontario. Mr. Ford only reversed his opposition to the idea last April and agreed to offer three days of sick pay after months of demands from medical experts, labour leaders and mayors. Before the pandemic, Mr. Ford cancelled the previous Liberal government’s move to guarantee all workers two employer-paid sick days.
Ontario’s Opposition NDP campaigned in the spring election on a pledge to grant workers 10 employer-paid permanent sick days, with a government transition fund to help small businesses.
Peggy Sattler, NDP MPP for London West and the party’s labour critic, says the lack of action on sick days shows the PCs’ conversion to labour causes is a mirage.
“We’ve always known that ‘working for workers’ was always a slogan; it was never a commitment,” Ms. Sattler said. “It was always smoke and mirrors.”
Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, urged the government to immediately bring in 10 permanent employer-paid sick days.
“Doug Ford repeatedly said during his campaign that he would work for workers,” Ms. Coates said. “Now is the time to put those words into action.”
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