Give Ontario workers unpaid emergency leave, government-commissioned report says

Ontario Labour Minister Kevin Flynn appears in a file photo. The provincial government has yet to announce which of the report's recommendations it will follow. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO – All Ontario workers should get a week of unpaid personal emergency leave a year, government-appointed experts recommended Tuesday, though they stopped short of urging paid sick leave for every employee.

Two labour law experts consulted with workers, unions and businesses for two years on a wide range of work-related issues.

In their report, Changing Workplaces Review, they recommend reforms to collective bargaining, strengthening workplace safety and inspection practices, wage fairness for part-time, casual, temporary, contract and seasonal employees, and increasing paid vacation time to three weeks for employees of longer than five years.

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The provincial government has yet to announce which of the report’s recommendations it will follow. Premier Kathleen Wynne said her government is considering the entire report, with the goal of building a society where people can earn a living that allows them to take care of themselves and their families.

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“We will be moving forward very soon to address the challenges of the precarious workplace,” said Wynne.

“People are finding it harder to find full time work where they are paid at a living wage.”

The 173 recommendations do not include extending paid sick leave to all employees, despite workers at public hearings saying it would be a useful protection.

“We heard that the combination of low income, lack of control over scheduling, lack of benefits such as pensions and health care, personal emergency leave or sick leave, all together or in various combinations, creates a great deal of uncertainty, anxiety, and stress which undermines the quality of life and the physical well-being of a wide swath of workers in our society,” the advisers said in the report.

The report notes that paid sick leave isn’t common and Prince Edward Island is the only province to provide it, with one paid sick day per year for employees with five or more years on the job.

Paid sick leave would be beneficial, but extending personal emergency leave to all employees is a more important first step, they wrote. They also recommend that personal emergency leave be available for victims of domestic violence.

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Currently, personal emergency leave is mandatory only from employers with 50 or more employees, and can be used for illness, injury, or urgent matters, such as the employee’s babysitter calling in sick.

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The advisers recommend bereavement leave be separated from personal emergency leave, with employees given three unpaid days for every applicable family member that dies, with no annual limit.

Bereaved parents should also get much more time off, the report recommends. Currently, they’re not legally entitled to more than 10 days off work, unless a child dies from a crime-related cause – in which case parents can take up to 104 weeks of unpaid leave. The advisers recommend giving all parents whose child has died or disappeared the option of up to two years of unpaid leave, regardless of the cause.

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They also recommend increasing family medical leave from eight weeks in a six-month period to 26 weeks a year, to mirror recent federal changes.

Business groups, including the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, have warned the government making major changes to labour laws could have a negative impact on the province’s economic recovery and lead to job cuts.

The chamber also warned raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour could harm businesses. Raising the minimum wage is not part of the Changing Workplaces Review, however, speculation that government is preparing to do so prompted the warning.

The advisers do recommend phasing out the lower minimum wage for liquor servers and eliminating the exemption of students from the minimum wage law.

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READ MORE: Ontario business group warns against major provincial labour law changes

The advisers, C. Michael Mitchell and John C. Murray, wrote that employers would “benefit from happier and more productive workplaces,” should the changes be implemented and that better enforcement would ensure that responsible law-abiding employers wouldn’t face unfair competition from those skirting the law.

While the advisers wrote that unpredictable work schedules contribute to the precariousness of work for many employees, they did not recommend specific provisions. Instead, they suggest that the government adopt “a sector-specific approach to the regulation of scheduling” as a priority.

They also recommend the government “initiate an urgent study on how to provide at least a minimum standard of insured health benefits across workplaces, especially to those full-time and part-time employees currently without coverage, and to the self-employed, including small employers.”