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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

To make a successful pandemic emergency paid sick leave program, you need three ingredients. After months of denial and foot-dragging, Ontario’s Ford government this week announced a plan containing two of them.

All Ottawa and Ontario have to do now is come together, play nice and add the final, missing piece. Better late than never.

Unlike most white-collar or union jobs, many low-wage jobs – often essential work in factories and warehouses – do not come with sick leave. If you don’t go to work, you don’t get paid. It’s a compelling incentive for people to go to work while sick.

The entirely unsurprising results have long been apparent in places such as Ontario’s Peel Region. The heart of the country’s logistics industry is a pandemic epicentre, with essential workplaces – many lacking paid sick leave – a main driver of infection. Peel’s COVID-19 test-positivity rate on April 24 was 18.1 per cent, double the provincial average.

The fix for all this? We laid it out earlier this week.

One: Order companies without sick pay to provide it, for the duration of the pandemic. Two: Have government reimburse employers for the cost. As with the federal wage subsidy program, financial arrangements should be between governments and employers. Three: Make sick leave available for a least two weeks, the time needed to quarantine.

The Ford government’s new plan answers the first two criteria. It orders companies to provide sick leave, with government reimbursing costs of up to $200 a day per employee. For a worker, taking a sick day, and getting paid, should be as simple as calling in sick. If she was to work an eight-hour shift at $20 an hour, the employer can apply for a refund of $160.

The big defect in Ontario’s plan? It only covers a maximum of three days.

The federal sick leave program, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, covers up to four weeks. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing it gets right. It requires employees – not employers – to apply for reimbursement of lost wages. Your boss isn’t giving you a guaranteed paid day off; instead, some opaque bureaucracy in Ottawa is offering an uncertain promise. And repayment is capped at $500 a week – less than the minimum wage in much of the country.

Very few workers are applying for the CRSB program, which is proof of its failure.

Ottawa’s program has one of the three needed ingredients. Ontario’s new plan has the other two. Put them together and what would we have? A program that gets the job done.

That means pandemic paid sick leave offered by employers, and paid by employers, but reimbursed by taxpayers up to $200 a day, for up to 10 consecutive working days.

To make that happen, what can Ottawa do? Modify the CRSB program, to allow employers to apply for repayment on behalf of sick employees.

What can Ontario do? Extend the benefit period to 10 consecutive days.

What can Ontario and Ottawa do together? Integrate their measures, so Ontario’s new sick-leave rules direct employers to apply for repayment through an improved CRSB program. Ottawa and Ontario (and other provinces) can figure out how to split the tab.

The Ford government has gotten most of the blame for this longstanding mess, but Ottawa deserves its share, too.

The Trudeau government is spending hundreds of billions of borrowed dollars supporting Canadians laid low by the economic effects of the pandemic. But it’s been strangely less interested in investments aimed at arresting the pandemic, and forestalling the costly economic fallout.

For example, the cost of the pandemic payments to out-of-work Canadians – the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and its successor, the CRB – is budgeted at $99.9-billion over three years. The business rent subsidy program? $8.4-billion. The wage subsidy program, which pays employers to keep people on the payroll? $110.5-billion.

But the CRSB – which is about encouraging sick workers to stay home, thereby reducing the spread of COVID-19, reducing the need for businesses to shut down and reducing the need to spend money subsidizing unemployed people – is budgeted at just $738-million.

It’s not too late for Ottawa and the provinces to fix this. A better sick leave program can be created tomorrow. And if all goes well, it can end by the fall.

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