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Doug Ford’s paid sick leave program ends in less than two months.

Posted in Canada, Featured

Published on November 12, 2021 with No Comments

Pressure is ramping up for the Ontario government to introduce permanent paid sick leave as the temporary pandemic sick days program is set to end in less than two months.

Labour advocates and health professionals say the pandemic has shown that guaranteed paid sick leave is an essential, life-saving policy that should extend beyond COVID-19.

Many are pushing for 10 permanent paid sick days as the temporary program nears its close.

But the government hasn’t yet indicated whether or not it will extend its temporary paid sick leave program or create a new, permanent one.

This fall, the government extended the program, which was supposed to come to a close in September, until the end of 2021. The program provides up to three days of paid sick leave — up to $200 per day — to workers who don’t have paid sick days as part of their employment benefits. It reimburses employers for the cost. It can be used by workers who are sick with COVID-19 or getting vaccinated.

Naheed Dosani, a Toronto-based palliative care physician and member of the Decent Work and Health Network, said the temporary program is ending at a worrying time, as the province is still in a fourth wave of COVID-19, and people are starting to go back to work in person.

“Ontario’s three temporary sick days are expiring in the dead of winter, when diseases can spread faster as people move indoors,” said Dosani, noting that in-person school is also a big risk factor.

“How are parents are going to take time off for their child’s illness or vaccine appointment without adequate paid sick days?”

COVID-19 has prompted other jurisdictions, both national and international, to introduce paid sick leave legislation, said Dosani. “The needle is moving.”

Most people at risk are workers with low-paid, precarious jobs, many of them racialized, said Dosani.

When asked in an email, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton’s press secretary, Harry Godfrey, didn’t say whether or not the government has plans to extend its temporary program or introduce permanent legislation.

Ontario had earmarked up to $2 billion for the temporary paid sick leave program. New data from the ministry of labour shows that, as of Nov. 5, the government has paid $67.8 million to employers who submitted claims for reimbursement, representing more than 204,000 workers.

On average, employees claimed $156 per day and 2.1 days out of the three allotted.

Deena Ladd, executive director of the Workers’ Action Centre, said the organization has been askingthe province for 10 permanent paid sick days since the pandemic began, and not just for COVID-19-related absences.

The federal sickness benefit was extended, she noted, but workers have to apply and it doesn’t arrive right away. For many workers, the seamlessness of

employer-provided sick days is necessary, said Ladd.

“Most workers can’t afford to miss a paycheque, or can’t afford to get half a paycheque,” she said. “When it’s a choice between keeping your housing or going to work sick, there is no choice.”

Manufacturing, retail and construction were the top three industries that saw workers take the sick leave. The three regions with the most claims were

Mississauga, Toronto and North York.

While there has been no indication that the government will extend the program or make paid sick leave permanent, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Last week, in a surprising policy U-turn, Ford announced minimum wage will increase to $15 as of Jan. 1, despite preventing such a raise when he entered office. While the move is seen as a clear election ploy, it nevertheless has some labour advocates hopeful, if not optimistic, that he might make a similar announcement about paid sick leave.

Ladd said it will take more than a $15 minimum wage for the government to convince workers that it’s there for them.

Patty Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, agreed, noting that the Ford government took away the two paid sick days workers had fought for pre-pandemic.

If Ford is trying to convince workers he’s changed his ways in time for the election, paid sick leave would be a major step forward, said Coates.

Ladd and Coates have asked the government to support a private member’s bill being debated this month.

MPP Peggy Sattler’s Stay Home If You Are Sick Act, which was defeated in February 2021 and retabled this fall, is pushing for 10 employer-funded paid sick days for all workers, plus an additional 14 during public health emergencies.

Sattler said pressure is growing on the government to make paid sick leave permanentBut she’s not optimistic the government is listening, based on its track record during the pandemic.

 

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