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A person representing factory and food processing plant workers is covered by a sheet as a group advocating for provincially mandated paid sick days for workers participates in a 'die-in' rally outside Queens Park in Toronto on Jan. 13, 2021.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

British Columbia is creating its own permanent program to provide workers with sick pay as Ottawa and Ontario engage in finger-pointing over whether to enhance a temporary federal benefit meant to keep workers infected with COVID-19 from spreading the disease.

B.C. Premier John Horgan maintained that Canada should have a national sick pay program. But he said his government is dusting off plans that were roughed out last summer to build a provincial system through WorkSafeBC, the workplace health and safety regulator.

“We didn’t get the program we needed at the time we needed it from the federal government, and they’ve done a lot of great things over the past 14 months but this is not one of them,” he said.

The B.C. government plan would not put financial pressure on business, Mr. Horgan said, but would ensure workers who don’t already have sick pay benefits can afford to stay home when feeling ill. He would not say when the new plan will be in place.

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B.C.’s move could ramp up the pressure on Ontario to develop its own program, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the province’s request for changes to the federal benefit on Tuesday. The province is asking the federal government to allow the province to fund a doubling of Ottawa’s existing Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) as long as the federal government continues to administer it.

The program has been widely criticized for its application delays, restrictive eligibility requirements – workers must miss 50 per cent of their work week to qualify – and for only offering $450 a week.

B.C.’s NDP government has faced pressure to address gaps in the federal sick pay plan since championing it a year ago. Now Mr. Horgan says Ottawa’s pandemic pay program is too flawed to simply top up. He said he believed Ottawa was going to improve its benefit program but that his government was caught flat-footed when the federal budget provided no amendments.

“We’re circling back to take charge of that issue and we’re going deliver it to the people who need it,” he said. “I don’t want to sound overly whiny about this, but we had commitments.”

Speaking to reporters, Mr. Trudeau rejected Ontario’s call, made in a letter to Ottawa that was obtained by The Globe and Mail this week, to allow for the doubling of the federal benefit.

He did say his Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland, would engage in talks on the issue. But Mr. Trudeau said it is up to Ontario to improve its own rules around paid sick days.

“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,” he said.

In a separate statement, Ms. Freeland’s press secretary, Katherine Cuplinskas, said Ontario could order provincially regulated employers to offer paid sick leave. Those employers could then use another federal COVID-19 program – the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy – to partly offset those costs. She also said the CRSB was meant to help “Canadians who would otherwise fall through the cracks” such as those without a regular employer, or who live in provinces without mandated paid sick leave.

The renewed wrangling follows a year of calls from public-health experts, mayors and opposition politicians for Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government to ensure low-income workers in warehouses and factories in places such as Peel Region and parts of Toronto – hit hardest by COVID-19 – can afford to stay home sick or get tested for the virus without missing a paycheque.

After months of vigorous opposition to the idea, Ontario Premier Doug Ford reversed himself last week and pledged that his government would take action itself and bring in “the best program anywhere in North America, bar none.”

But his Labour Minister, Monte McNaughton, acknowledged Tuesday that the government’s plan at the moment consists of a letter asking Ottawa to allow Ontario to cover the costs of doubling the cash offered under the existing federal sick leave benefit. He said he hoped to achieve the change through talks with Ms. Freeland.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the provincial government was seeking to “piggyback on a failed federal program,” while ignoring its own scientific advisers, who have called for sick pay for essential workers. She said the province’s plan is “not paid sick days,” and that only increasing the cash on offer, without fixing the rest of the federal program’s flaws, would do little to stop people from dying of COVID-19.

“A number of days have gone by since the Premier made the suggestion that we were going to have the best paid sick day plan in all of North America,” Ms. Horwath told reporters. “If this is all that they’ve come up with, then obviously the Premier was once again making stuff up.”

Many doctors say the punishing third wave of COVID-19 that is straining Ontario’s hospitals is being driven by transmission in workplaces where staff cannot work from home. In January, health officials in Peel Region, west of Toronto and home to a high concentration of factories and distribution centres, said a study of nearly 8,000 people with symptoms of what could be COVID-19 showed that 25 per cent reported to their jobs between August, 2020, and January, 2021. Eighty people went to work despite a positive test for the virus.

After it was elected in 2018, Mr. Ford’s government repealed parts of the previous Liberal government’s labour legislation, including provisions for two mandatory paid sick days. It also killed plans for a $15 minimum wage. (It is now $14.25 an hour.)

Only Prince Edward Island and Quebec currently mandate any minimum paid sick days, with PEI requiring employers to offer one a year and Quebec requiring two. Employees in federally regulated industries, such as banking and broadcasting, are entitled to three paid sick days.

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