When it comes to the principle of paid sick leave, Ottawa and Ontario are (finally) on the same page.
But as of Tuesday afternoon – going on Month 14 of the pandemic – they were still arguing over the details of an emergency program to provide paid days for essential workers who need to take time off to get tested for COVID-19, or who have to isolate because they’ve tested positive, are ill, or have been in contact with someone who is.
The current federal program, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, isn’t up to the job. But the same can be said of the Doug Ford government’s proposal: After months of rejecting emergency sick leave, it now wants to double the payments from the failed federal program, with Ontario picking up the tab.
There is a better way. The model? The Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. It’s a federal pandemic program that deals directly with employers – with employees seamlessly receiving the benefits.
We’ll get into the details in a moment. But first, how Ontario, Ottawa and much of Canada ended up here.
It has been known since December that essential workplaces – warehouses, distribution centres, factories and food-processing plants – were becoming a leading source of new infections, and that people who rely on shift work in those places were being forced to choose between reporting for their jobs while sick, or not getting paid.
In early February, Dr. Lawrence Loh, the Medical Officer of Health of the Greater Toronto Area’s Peel Region, home to four Amazon warehouses alone, said one in four Peel residents diagnosed with COVID-19 was going into work while sick.
By mid-April, the test positivity rate in some parts of Peel was as high as 30 per cent. The hardest hit area is Brampton, where Emily Victoria Viegas, the 13-year-old daughter of a warehouse worker, died of COVID-19 on April 22.
For five months – an eternity in this fast-moving pandemic – the Trudeau and Ford governments have dragged their feet.
Ottawa has insisted that the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit is a sufficient backstop for workers who don’t have paid sick leave, though the program has in fact been a measurable bust.
Ottawa originally forecast that the benefit would cost $5-billion over two years, but take-up has been so small that it lowered the forecast to $738-million in its April budget.
The problem is that accessing the CRSB requires a person to miss at least 50 per cent of their scheduled work week, and to reapply each week they need it, up to a maximum of four times. It does absolutely nothing for someone who just needs to miss a shift to get a vaccination or a test.
It also pays too little – just $500 a week. The money takes weeks to arrive. And employees have to figure out how to apply. Their employer isn’t even part of the discussion.
Mr. Ford insisted for months that the federal CRSB was adequate, and thus he didn’t need to act. But last week, with the third wave peaking in Ontario, he had a teary change of heart and promised to bring in “the best program anywhere in North America.”
That turned out to be the $500 top-up of the little-used federal benefit.
Which brings us back to the model for fixing all this: the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.
Unlike the CRSB, it’s an arrangement between employers and government. Individual employees don’t have to apply to Ottawa, asking bureaucrats to please subsidize their job during the pandemic.
As we’ve suggested here before, why not do the same with the emergency sickness benefit? Instead of offering CRSB funding to employees, offer it to those employers not currently providing paid sick leave. Ask businesses to temporarily provide sick pay to all employees. And promise those employers that their costs for doing so will be 100 per cent reimbursed by Ottawa, up to a maximum of, say, $1,000 an employee a week.
Better yet, rather than asking employers to please join such an emergency program, Ontario and other provinces can immediately order them to do so.
We need essential workers to stay home when they’re sick. The way to do that? Keep it simple – for them. Offer the benefit through their employers. Have the taxpayer pay for it.
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