The provincial Worker Income Protection Benefit program, first introduced in April 2021 during the Delta-driven wave of COVID-19 and extended amid the Omicron stage of the pandemic, is slated to end on July 31. There has been no formal indication from the Progressive Conservative government on whether the measure will be extended.
The lack of clarity has led to new worries among the government’s political critics, who insist workers will have to choose between their health or their income.
“People who don’t have access to paid sick days are going to have to make that choice — do I go into work and potentially affect coworkers, rather than self-isolate? Or do I take the financial hit that’s involved with staying home and doing the right thing,” said NDP MPP Peggy Sattler.
“We don’t need to be sitting in the legislature, the government could extend those emergency temporary paid sick days right now with the stroke of a pen,” Sattler said.
Since the program was implemented, government data shows nearly half-a-million workers have relied on the program to call in sick without interrupting their pay.
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As of June 24, the government said 470,000 workers have claimed a sick day, costing the province $189 million. The province said the bulk of the claims were made in the manufacturing, retail and healthcare sectors, and the majority of which came from employees in Mississauga, Toronto and London.
The provincial program allowed workers to take a day off to care for a sick relative, get a booster COVID-19 shot or take young children to get vaccinated.
Employers are reimbursed for up to $200 per day for each employee through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, which delivers the program.
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton wasn’t made available for an interview about the status of the program.
McNaughton, however, is also facing calls to expand the program by giving workers permanent access to ten days of paid sick leave — and enshrine it in legislation.
Sattler said she plans to reintroduce the Stay Home If You Are Sick act when the legislature resumes in August to give workers access to 10 days of paid emergency leave and 14 days unpaid emergency leave every year.
The bill was originally tabled in 2021 but was defeated by the Ford government.
Dr. Vanessa Redditt, a family doctor and a member of the Decent Work and Health Network, told Global News that low-wage workers faced a higher burden of COVID-19 due to workplace exposures.
Redditt said the province needs to focus on those workers’ needs beyond the pandemic.
“Parents need time to care for their children when they’re sick. People need time off to recover from a sprained ankle or from an appendectomy or from a miscarriage,” Redditt said.
The government pointed out, however, that despite having access to three days, employees have on average taken 2.5 days of sick leave, far lower than the 10 days advocates claim is required.
Redditt said the government’s data waters down any worries that paid sick leave could be abused.
“The evidence suggests that, on average, people don’t use up their paid sick days, that they’re using them appropriately to recover from illness,” Redditt said.