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

Ontario will provide workers with three paid sick days to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic until the fall, a major turnaround for Premier Doug Ford’s government that critics said was still inadequate.

But the province is still pushing the federal government to do more, asking Ottawa to heed its request to double the federal sick-leave benefit to $1,000 a week.

Until last week, Mr. Ford had repeatedly swept aside calls to create his own provincial plan, even as essential workers reported going to work ill because they didn’t want to lose their wages. But after issuing a tearful apology last week for his government’s deeply unpopular public-health measures, he vowed to bring in his own program.

How Doug Ford and Justin Trudeau can create a paid sick leave program that actually works

The Premier, currently in isolation at his late mother’s home after a COVID-19 exposure in his office, left his Labour Minister and Finance Minister to announce the new temporary provincial program, which could cost up to $2-billion.

The program, which expires on Sept. 25, will require employers to pay their workers up to $200 a day for up to three days. Employees can use the days off to isolate if they have symptoms, to get vaccinated or to care for others, and will not have to provide sick notes. The program will be retroactive to April 19, and employers will be reimbursed through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. The changes will be introduced through legislation. The program will not apply to independent contractors.

Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the provincial program is intended to “fill the gaps” of the federal government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, or CRSB, which provides sick leave for up to four weeks to Canadians across the country. But the take-up has been far less than Ottawa initially projected, and the program has been criticized as inadequate and cumbersome.

“This is a game-changer and this will save lives,” Mr. McNaughton said.

But Andrew Morris, an infectious-disease physician at Toronto’s University Health Network who sits on Ontario’s independent COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said the plan falls well short of what’s needed. He said workers should be guaranteed at least 10 paid sick days, to ensure they can self-isolate – and that this should have been done months ago.

“It’s petty. It’s cynical. Honestly, I am speechless about this,” Dr. Morris said.

Ontario is in the midst of a devastating third wave that has led to a record number of people hospitalized for COVID-19. Hospitals have been forced to cancel surgeries to free up space in intensive care units, and the Canadian Forces and Red Cross have been dispatched to the province to help hospitals.

Among those calling for paid sick days have been the scientists on the Science Advisory Table, which released a new paper Wednesday arguing the measure could have a dramatic effect on the transmission of the virus.

The paper says that in the United States, the introduction of a temporary paid sick-leave provision “resulted in an estimated 50-per-cent reduction in the number of COVID-19 cases per state per day.” The paper also cites studies showing that access to paid sick leave previously led to declines in the spread of influenza, reducing it by 18 per cent in some U.S. cities.

While it says some Canadian provinces have introduced new leave provisions during the pandemic, the paper says only Yukon offers a paid sick-leave benefit for workers who get sick because of COVID-19, or who need to isolate or quarantine, that guarantees 10 days of wages.

Critics say the federal sick benefit program offers too little – at just $500 a week – and takes too long to send cheques to workers who must apply for support after the fact, meaning too few are making use of it.

Mr. Ford spoke to Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc on Tuesday evening to discuss how the two governments could work together. Katherine Cuplinskas, a spokeswoman for Deputy Premier Chrystia Freeland, did not directly respond to queries about whether Ottawa will allow for a doubling of the federal program.

“The federal wage subsidy was designed – and is already set up – to provide employers with financial support to pay the wages of workers who are on sick leave,” she said in a statement. “As we have said, we will be there to help Ontario with its program.”

Before the pandemic, only Prince Edward Island and Quebec mandated paid sick days. Employees in federally regulated industries, such as banking and broadcasting, are entitled to three paid sick days. When the Ontario Progressive Conservatives took office in 2018, Mr. Ford repealed the previous Liberal government’s two mandated paid sick days.

British Columbia’s NDP government has also faced pressure to address gaps in the federal sick-pay plan since championing it a year ago. B.C. Premier John Horgan said this week the province will also create its own permanent program to provide workers with sick pay after criticizing Ottawa’s plan as too flawed to simply top up.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said three days is not enough, and Ontario’s program should be permanent. “They came forward today with a back-of-an-envelope kind of solution that’s really not enough to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our workplaces,” she said.

Business leaders welcomed Ontario’s plan. Rocco Rossi, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, praised the government for sparing businesses the cost and ensuring the program is temporary. He said he would have issues with any permanent “one-size-fits-all” sick-day program paid for by employers, and that any discussion of that idea should wait until after the crisis.

The Ontario Medical Association also said it welcomed the announcement and called it “an important step.”

With a report from Robert Fife in Ottawa

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