Despite pleas from many in the medical community and from community advocates for the Ontario government to enact a paid sick day program to help workers who need to stay home due to COVID-19, Premier Doug Ford doubled down on referring residents to a federal government support program.
“My message to the opposition and everyone else because there are a lot of people that are playing politics right now and it’s totally irresponsible, they’re doing a disservice to the people they’re telling this to, there’s paid sick leave from the federal government,” he said Wednesday afternoon.
Ford made the comments as he and other officials unveiled a provincewide stay-at-home order due to soaring COVID-19 cases.
He said approximately 300,000 Ontario residents have accessed the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB), which pays $500 per week ($450 after taxes) for up to four weeks for anyone required to quarantine because of COVID-19. The federal government said it was intended to help workers who might have been exposed to the illness and whose employers do not offer paid sick leave.
He went on to say it was the premiers who negotiated with the federal government to institute a $1.1-billion sick pay program, adding there is $750 million still available. Ford pushed for people to apply on the Government of Canada website.
“To all the opposition and everyone who is preaching about the sick days and playing politics, rather than do that why don’t you try to help someone by telling them where they can go? That’s a disservice if you tell them anything but that,” he said.
Ford was pressed about his referral to the federal government in the face of stories from doctors of patients who worked in frontline jobs who inevitably were hospitalized and families who have had to wait for weeks to be reimbursed.
“Your argument just doesn’t fly, I’m sorry … it’s not cutting the mustard — simple as that,” he told a Global News reporter when asked about the issue, adding the application period was shortened.
“There is a program out there. If I put the word Ontario and not put Canada, would you be happy? It’s the same taxpayer. We’re all paying the same taxes. There’s one taxpayer out there — simple as that.”
When asked about Ford’s comments Wednesday afternoon, Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario, rebuked the premier’s assertions.
“The only one playing politics on this question is Doug Ford and the conservatives in Ontario,” he told Global News.
Hahn said under the federal program, workers need to apply after being sick and they need to have been away for a majority of days they were scheduled to work in a week. He said if a worker is approved, you receive payment six-to-eight weeks later.
When it comes to a provincial sick leave program, which Hahn and other advocates have called for, they said they want to see it operate like a wage continuance. So he said that would see workers be paid as normal if they have to stay home.
“That’s a fundamental difference and quite an important one,” Hahn said.
“Is it good that there is some program at the federal program that might be able to assist some people in certain circumstances in times when we’re not in the worst global health and economic crisis any of us have ever lived through? Maybe, but in the midst of this crisis for months and months, what people have been calling for is paid sick leave that doesn’t reduce your wages, that doesn’t make you wait, that doesn’t negatively impact your paycheque.
“Without all those things, people are going to make the difficult choices they’ve been forced to make since the pandemic began. They’re going to go to work when they ought not to because they have to pay their rent and they have to feed their children.”
The position taken by Ford and his government has been consistent for months. When the provincial budget was unveiled in March, questions were raised about why the program was left out.
Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy at the time pushed people to use the CRSB.
“That program exists and it’s over a billion dollars … this is a program for 20 paid sick days. I’ve gone on the website, check out the website. It’s very easy to use,” he said on March 24.
During the second wave of cases in January, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, said at the time more must be done to help residents comply with public health rules in the face of rising cases, including instituting paid sick days.
Organizations like the Ontario Medical Association and the Ontario Hospital Association have also called for a paid sick leave program.