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Canada's Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion Carla Qualtrough takes part in a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 24, 2020.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

The Ontario and federal governments are sparring over who should foot the bill for paid sick days as the COVID-19 virus continues to spread rapidly through workplaces.

Several months of calls from public-health officials for paid sick leave are going unheeded by the provincial and federal governments while essential labourers continue to work in fear of surging workplace outbreaks. The Ford government has rebuffed calls to mandate employers to provide paid sick leave, while pointing to the federal government to change its sickness benefit.

Canada’s Employment minister Carla Qualtrough said on Thursday that paid sick days fall under provincial jurisdiction, and that providing paid sick days would not overlap — as the province has suggested it would — with a federal program that provides $500 a week for up to two weeks for workers who need to take time off because of COVID-19. The statement was issued in response to Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton’s letter last week asking the federal government to amend the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit.

Ms. Qualtrough said that the federal government has provided financial support for workers through several programs, including a wage subsidy that offers temporary wage support for companies that experienced a sharp decline in revenue because of COVID-19.

“Enhancing provisions for paid sick leave within provincial jurisdiction is not duplicative of federal programs, but rather serve in a complimentary manner, providing important options to Canadian workers,” Ms. Qualtrough said in the letter.

Since the CRSB was introduced in September, public-health officials, mayors and labour advocates have criticized the benefit for falling short of providing paid sick days. They say that the program results in delayed payment, pays less than minimum wage, applies only to workers who lose more than half of their hours per week, and can only be used twice.

Ontario’s labour minister said that the federal government needs to better educate workers and businesses on how to access the sickness benefit, adding that the province provided financial support through other measures, such as lowering hydro rates.

“I know that this isn’t recuperating 100 per cent of people’s lost wages, but we need to get through this pandemic and this is an emergency measure,” Mr. McNaughton said at a press conference on Friday.

More than half of workers in Canada don’t have access to paid sick leave. And one-quarter of workers in Peel region west of Toronto – which is one of the country’s largest manufacturing, warehousing and distribution hubs – continue to go into work while sick, according to a recent survey by Peel Public Health.

Almost 2,000 people, or 25 per cent of those surveyed, went into work infected with the virus between August and January. The study also found that found that 80 people went to work after receiving a positive COVID-19 test result.

Workplaces have been a key driver of rising COVID-19 cases since the fall. The Peel region has struggled with some of the highest infection rates in the country and hundreds of workplace outbreaks. The region is also juggling the spread of the more-contagious variants, with six cases of the variant discovered in Britain, as well as the first case of the Southern African variant in Ontario. Last Monday, Toronto health officials said that the British variant was detected in two people during an outbreak in a meat-processing plant.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, one of several mayors who have urged the provincial government to mandate paid sick days, said that she is frustrated that the provincial and federal governments have not acted on calls for paid sick leave.

“It’s going to be months before all Ontarians are vaccinated, and paid sick leave is one of the best tools we have to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Ms. Crombie said on Wednesday.

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