COVID-19: Ontario proposes federal benefit top-up as plan on sick day program still not announced

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Doug Ford apologizes, reiterates paid sick leave coming'
COVID-19: Doug Ford apologizes, reiterates paid sick leave coming
WATCH ABOVE: Premier Doug Ford spoke with reporters days after entering self-isolation because a staff member in his office tested positive for COVID-19. Travis Dhanraj reports – Apr 22, 2021

Days after Ontario Premier Doug Ford promised “one of the best” paid sick day programs in North America, it appears the provincial government is considering a move that would double the amount of money people can receive if they need to take time off due to COVID-19.

However, as of Tuesday, many questions and concerns remain unaddressed, including if there will be provisions to stop pay interruption and issues with timely access to funding — points advocates and opposition politicians have repeatedly said poses barriers to those in need.

In a letter obtained by Global News on Tuesday, Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy wrote Deputy Prime Minister and federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to say the provincial government would provide a $500 per week top-up to the current $500-per-week ($450 after taxes) Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) program. People can access CRSB for up to four weeks if they are required to quarantine because of COVID-19.

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“It has become clear that the uptake for the CRSB is not as high as we would like to see, so we must create a greater incentive for people to use the program and stay home when they are ill or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19,” the letter said while going on to reiterate a recent criticism from the provincial government about the 2021 federal budget not addressing issues with CRSB.

“We believe that this (top-up) is the simplest and fastest way to increase program update and make this program more effective for those who are sick, don’t have employer-paid sick leave, and need this program most.”

During question period on Tuesday, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath questioned why the provincial government is relying on topping up the federal program, which she called a “failed” one.

“Workers are dying, people are dying in this province, and paid sick days can save lives — we all know that,” she said.

READ MORE: Ford government hints at some sort of paid sick leave support after months of refusal

“Instead of doing the right thing here and stepping up, (the government) has voted 25 times in this legislature against paid sick days. The question is those paid sick days could be passed today, we have bills we could pass today, will the government do that?”

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Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the government “support(s) the health and well-being of every single worker” in Ontario, reiterating a call to double the amount of money being paid to workers. He didn’t clarify if there will be any additional measures to help workers.

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Global News contacted Ford and McNaughton’s offices to ask when a plan might be brought forward and responses weren’t received as of Tuesday evening.

When asked about the proposed top-up, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Freeland and Bethlenfalvy are having discussions on options, but he didn’t elaborate on if the federal government would do that. He said workplaces are the most efficient way to deliver further supports.

“We need to work together and provinces need to look at the way to deliver sick leave directly through employers, which the federal government can’t do,” Trudeau said Tuesday afternoon.

READ MORE: Ontario rejects efforts on paid sick leave, says expanding police power was mistake

Katherine Cuplinskas, Freeland’s press secretary, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon the CRSB is meant to be a measure for those who “fall through the cracks” because there are no benefits through their employers or in province’s where there isn’t a provincial program.

“When Ontario is ready to mandate sick leave in provincially-regulated businesses, as we have done for federally-regulated businesses, we will be there to help,” she wrote.

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“In fact, the wage subsidy was designed – and is already set up – to provide employers with financial support to pay the wages of workers who are on sick leave.”

It was on Thursday when Ford, while self-isolating due to coming into contact with a staff member who tested positive for COVID-19, confirmed his government was working on a plan for an Ontario paid sick leave program.

READ MORE: Why advocates say paid sick days and CRSB are needed to fight COVID-19

“It’s going to be one of the best (programs) in conjunction with the federal government in the entire North America. I also want to remind the people of Ontario, there’s no other province in this entire country that has the program that we’re going to be laying out — nowhere close,” he told reporters when asked about the issue of paid sick days.

For months, doctors, health-care workers, and advocates have continually called for a provincial regime for provincial sick days. They pushed for such a program to operate like a wage continuance so workers would be paid as normal if they have to stay home.

They also cited issues with the requirements under the CRSB, which requires workers to apply to a program and if they qualify under certain criteria, they will be reimbursed at a later time. That delay in receiving money, advocates have said, could impact the timely payment of rent or other bills.

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On April 20, Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table reiterated the need to ensure essential workers continue to receive pay if they need to stay home, are exposed to COVID-19, or need time to get a vaccine. The group said the current federal program is not enough.

“Workers who do [go to work sick or go after having been exposed to the virus] often do so because they have no choice: they must feed their families and pay their rent. Compared to other models that appear to have limited spread, the federal [Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit] is cumbersome and does not provide enough financial support,” the members wrote in an open letter.

“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 … will help limit spread.”

Meanwhile, the government’s recent overtures on paid sick days from Ford and other members of his cabinet mark a noticeable change from previous messaging.

READ MORE: Ontario’s science table makes urgent push for stronger COVID-19 measures

When the provincial budget was unveiled in March, questions were raised about why the program was left out. Bethlenfalvy, at the time, pushed people to use the CRSB.

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“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.

Earlier in April, Ford accused people of “playing politics” when it comes to calling for a provincial 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 on April 7.

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