TORONTO — The Ontario government should consider working directly with the employers of essential workers to deliver paid sick leave as the province grapples with the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday.
The Prime Minister’s comments come just hours after the province ducked calls for its own paid sick leave program.
Instead, the Progressive Conservative government offered to boost the amount of money employees can receive from the federally-mandated Canada Sickness Recovery Benefit (CSRB) for four weeks.
The province’s labour minister confirmed to the Ontario Legislature that the government wants to double the CSRB from $500 to $1,000 per employee and that the province is willing to fund the cost to increase the support.
“We don’t want workers to choose between their health and their job,” Minister Monte McNaughton said on Tuesday during Question Period. “We’re calling on the Federal Government to double the payments from $500 to $1,000 for four weeks of paid sick days.”
Speaking at a separate news conference in Ottawa hours later, Trudeau said Ontario should work directly through the employers of essential workers to deliver the support, which the federal government “can’t do.”
“The Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister are engaged directly with the province of Ontario to support them as they look at further measures to ensure that nobody has to make the choice of going to work sick,” he said.
“One of the most efficient ways of doing that is obviously to work through employers as we have through federally-regulated workplaces.”
The proposition from the PC government comes after intense political debate about the need for paid sick leave, with the NDP suggesting the measure could save the lives of front-line employees who have continued to work during the pandemic.
Paid emergency leave was also a key recommendation from the Ontario Science Advisory Table, which said symptomatic employees have been showing up to work largely because missing a shift could jeopardize their ability to purchase groceries and pay other essential bills.
“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 Science Advisory Table said one week ago.
The CSRB has been criticized as an inadequate program because it forces an employee to miss 50 per cent of their work week to qualify for the benefit and pays them less than minimum wage.
The Doug Ford government has acknowledged that the $1.1 billion CSRB hasn’t been fully utilized by employees and claimed the program was riddled with “gaps” that needed to be addressed.
“Our plan would pay $25 an hour, $1,000 a week for four weeks,” McNaughton told MPP and said the program – if approved by the federal government – would be retroactive for six weeks.
The Ontario NDP, however, said the province needs to create its own program allowing employees to call in sick without having to sacrifice pay.
“Doubling down on a broken system, a broken program is not going to help Ontario workers,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “The federal program simply does not work.
“Workers are dying, people are dying and paid sick days can save lives.”
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