A month after all provincial government workers were told they can get COVID-19 vaccinations without using unpaid or vacation time, Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario MPPs have voted twice against NDP motions looking to extend the same ability to all private-sector workers.
This week’s votes came as Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, a body of 40 doctors, medical experts and scientists, released a joint letter on Tuesday urging stronger public health measures to be imposed.
Among the six priority areas was the need to ensure essential workers are paid to stay home when they are sick, when they are exposed to COVID-19, or when they need time to get vaccinated.
“An emergency benefit that offers more money, is easily accessible, immediately paid and that, for the duration of the pandemic, is available to essential workers – when they are sick, when they’ve been exposed, need time off to get tested, or when it’s their turn to get vaccinated – will help limit spread,” the letter said.
At Queen’s Park Wednesday afternoon, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath questioned why paid vaccination time hasn’t been implemented yet.
“It doesn’t make sense that any worker should have to worry about booking an appointment that’s the most expedient to get their shot and then having to perhaps not take that appointment because it’s interfering with their work hours and they’re afraid of losing pay,” she said.
“The idea that paid vaccination time is happening with public workers I’m happy about that, but it needs to be there for every single worker in our province just like it is when you go vote.”
In a March 16 memo written by Kevin French, the deputy minister of the Treasury Board Secretariat, and shared with Global News by an Ontario government employee, it outlines the importance of eligible workers for getting vaccinations under phase two of the provincial rollout.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many challenges, planning for the commencement of phase two signals an important step to restarting Ontario’s economy,” the memo said.
The memo, which was sent to the entire public service, went on to describe the need to provide “as much flexibility as possible” when employees get vaccination booking times.
“To support OPS employees and ensure the safety of those working around them, employees, whose vaccination appointment falls during their regularly scheduled work hours, will not be required to use an existing credit or take unpaid time off to attend their appointment,” the document said.
“Where operationally feasible, employees will need to provide as much advance notice as possible and work with their manager. Managers will be expected to continue to provide flexibility to staff during this time to ensure ongoing operations.”
A spokesperson for Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy told Global News after the publication of this story that the decision was made by the Ontario Public Service and wasn’t made based on government input.
“It is the expectation of OPS management that staff will make every effort to schedule their vaccine appointments outside of their regularly scheduled working hours. However, where an OPS employee may have an extenuating circumstance that results in a vaccine appointment occurring during their scheduled work hours, managers will work with staff to provide flexibility where possible based on operational requirements,” Sebastian Skamski wrote in a statement, adding there were no additional entitlements being provided.
“It is important to note that now and throughout the pandemic, roughly 50 per cent of OPS employees are working in person at their workplaces to provide critical frontline services.”
The statement didn’t address if the government was moving to put in place requirements for private-sector employers, Skamski encouraged businesses to support their employees.
“The government encourages all employers to accommodate their employees’ vaccination appointments to ensure they can provide the safest working conditions for their employees and to ensure their workforce is safe healthy and safe,” he wrote.
When asked about the matter Wednesday afternoon, Government House Leader Paul Calandra didn’t directly answer the question. However, in a recent change in messaging on paid sick days, he acknowledged more needs to be done to help essential workers.
“They are so important to the continuation of our economy, to helping us defeat this pandemic,” he said, reiterating the government is looking at bringing forward some sort of measures to address “gaps” in the federal government’s program.
Government officials have rejected cries from medical experts and advocates for an Ontario paid sick leave program throughout the pandemic multiple times over several months, citing the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB). As the third wave worsens in Ontario, critics said provincial paid sick leave could help to curb surging numbers.
Calandra recently said he anticipated the federal government would announce further enhancements to their sick-day program on Monday when the federal budget was announced.
However, once announced, the budget did not implement any changes to CRSB, which pays $500 per week ($450 after taxes) for up to four weeks for anyone required to quarantine because of COVID-19.
Advocates previously 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. Many have raised that it can take weeks to get reimbursement.
When it comes to a provincial sick leave program, advocates said they want to see it operate like a wage continuance. Such a mechanism, if approved, would see workers be paid as normal if they have to stay home.
— With files from Ryan Rocca