After Ontario Premier Doug Ford promised “one of the best” paid sick day programs in North America, the provincial government is announcing workers who have been impacted by COVID-19 will be able to access three paid sick days.
Called the Ontario COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Program, the provincial government billed the initiative as the “most generous pandemic paid leave in the country.”
The program will be administered by the WSIB and the provincial government will reimburse employers 100 per cent of the employee’s wage for up to $200 a day.
Officials also announced the provincial government program could see a $500 top-up to the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) program conditional on federal approval.
Workers who are sick or are experiencing symptoms, who need to get vaccinated or have COVID-19-related mental health issues will qualify for the benefit.
However, a spokesperson for Labour Minister Monte McNaughton’s office told Global News freelance and gig economy workers won’t qualify for the provincial program, referring those workers to CRSB.
The program, which sources told Global News is expected to cost between $750 million and $1.5 billion, will end on Sept. 25.
It’s not clear how soon applications will be processed since the program still needs to be passed by the legislature, but the website was launched Wednesday afternoon. Officials noted the program will be retroactive to April 19.
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The news came after Ontario’s auditor general released an in-depth report looking at systemic issues in the province’s long-term care sector.
“If passed, all workers will soon have access to three paid sick days. This is more than the one day available to workers in Prince Edward Island and the two days available to workers in Quebec,” Labour Minister Monte McNaughton told reporters.
“This is a game-changer and this will save lives.”
However, questions were raised by critics about the total number of sick days being allocated to workers given if someone is exposed to COVID-19, they can potentially be ordered to self-isolate by public health units for 10 to 14 days.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government’s policy “simply will not cut it.”
“(Workers) will be left making pretty much the same kind of calculation that they’re being forced to make now, which is, ‘I’ve got the sniffles, I’m not feeling all that great … but I have to go to work because I don’t have a financial security to stay home,'” she said.
Horwath said her party needed to see the government’s legislation before deciding whether to support it but added that it appeared far inferior to an NDP private members bill to introduce 10 paid sick days.
Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner said he was shocked that after months of pressure, the three-day policy was all that the government has introduced.
He called on Ford — who is self-isolating due to coming into contact with a staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 — to change the legislation to provide at least 10 paid sick days.
“I was hopeful that after the premier took taxpayer-funded paid sick days to isolate after a workplace exposure, he would have had a change of heart,” he said in a statement.
“But Ford’s plan falls well short of providing the protection workers need.”
Certain other provinces and territories have paid sick leave programs. Prince Edward Island and Yukon both offer employer rebates for up to six (up to three days in two different weeks) and 10 days, respectively.
The government was working in recent days to put together a program, but before Wednesday it was unclear when it was going to be unveiled.
Global News obtained a letter written by Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy to Deputy Prime Minister and federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland saying the provincial government would provide $500-per-week top-up to the current $500-per-week ($450 after taxes) CRSB. People can access CRSB for up to four weeks if they are required to quarantine because of COVID-19.
“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.”
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.
It was on Thursday when Ford confirmed his government was working on a plan for an Ontario paid sick leave program.
“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.
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.
“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.”
The government’s recent messaging on paid sick days has been a noticeable change compared to recent months.
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. Earlier in April, Ford accused people of “playing politics” with respect to calls for instituting a provincial program.
The COVID-19 pandemic was formally declared in early 2020.
— With files from Travis Dhanraj and The Canadian Press