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Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton takes to the podium, during a news conference in Toronto on April 28, 2021.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario labour advocates say the province’s extension of a temporary, three-day paid sick leave program is inadequate amid a seventh wave of COVID-19 that is straining an already stretched health care system.

Since its launch in April, 2021, half a million people have received the Worker Income Protection Benefit, which compensates individuals up to $200 a day for sick leave related to COVID-19. The program provides workers paid time off, including time to recover from the virus, get tested or receive a vaccine.

Not long before the program was set to expire last month, reappointed Labour Minister Monte McNaughton extended the program until at least March 31, 2023, and reiterated that it will continue to be in place as long as the pandemic continues.

But despite a resurgence of the virus and a rise in the number of people being reinfected, those who have already received three paid sick days through the program are no longer eligible.

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Ontario Federation of Labour president Patty Coates said its unacceptable that workers have to stretch three sick days over the course of the pandemic, especially with the potential for reinfection. The three-day program also doesn’t cover the mandatory five-day isolation period for positive cases. Ms. Coates said workers without paid leave would be forced to lose days of work in order to stay home.

The federation and other labour groups are calling for 10 permanent, employer-paid sick days that would cover an absence because of any illness, not just COVID-19. Ms. Coates said an additional 14 days should be provided during a health crisis.

“We know that the extension of this program continues to leave workers behind and leave workers having to choose between staying home when they are sick and making ends meet,” she said in an interview.

“Curbing the spread requires that people can stay at home and not have to worry about finances, and with the cost of living going up now, many workers are going to go into work sick.”

As of July 1, $191-million has been doled out by the province during the first 14 months of the benefit with an average claim of $159 a day and 2.5 sick days a person. Workers in manufacturing, retail, social assistance and health care have submitted the most claims to the program and uptake has been highest in Mississauga, Toronto and London.

A report prepared by advocacy group Decent Work and Health Network in 2020 found that 58 per cent of Canadian workers didn’t have paid sick days from their employers. This rose to 70 per cent for workers who earned less than $25,000.

Physician Naheed Dosani, a member of the network, said a stronger sick-day program could play a key role in reducing stress on the struggling health care system by enabling people to stay home and prevent spread of an illness. Citing a study out of the United States, Dr. Dosani said workers without paid sick leave are three times as likely to delay or forgo medical care.

Staffing shortages and increased visits have led to backlogs in emergency departments across the province with some having to reduce hours or close for several days in recent weeks. The intensive-care unit at Bowmanville Hospital temporarily closed ahead of the long weekend without a timeline for it to resume operations.

It makes a lot of sense for the economy and our health care system by enhancing preventative care and reducing the burden on an already strained system,” Dr. Dosani said.

He also said there is an urgent need to offer paid sick days for infectious diseases other than COVID-19, pointing to the growing spread of monkeypox in the province.

The virus was recently declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization and as of Thursday there were 367 confirmed cases in Ontario. People who have contracted the virus are advised to isolate when symptoms are present, which could last 21 days.

Asked about extending paid leave to cover monkeypox, Mr. McNaughton said in a statement that the province is “monitoring the situation” but a decision on a new sick-leave policy hasn’t been made at this time.

In a letter to Mr. McNaughton, Ontario Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer Rocco Rossi said the organization supports the extension of the current program in an effort to stem transmission of the virus during the seventh wave and prevent further labour shortages. Mr. Rossi said any consideration of a permanent, employer-paid program must be developed in consultation with the business community to “avoid adverse consequences.”

Government-led paid sick leave programs exist sparingly across Canada. British Columbia became the first province to mandate a minimum of five paid sick days at the beginning of this year. The federal government also passed legislation to provide 10 paid sick days for federally regulated workers that is scheduled to take effect Dec. 1.

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