The Ontario government is offering to double federal sick leave payments to $1,000 a week for workers in the province amid the surging COVID-19 pandemic – if Ottawa agrees to administer the program.
In an April 22 letter to Finance Minster Chrystia Freeland, obtained by The Globe and Mail, Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy said the province has heard from its medical and science professionals that a paid sick leave program “is critical” in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.
Mr. Bethlenfalvy writes that the province’s proposal is the “simplest and fastest” way to increase the use of the existing federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB).
The federal CRSB 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. The federal government estimated in November that the benefit would provide nearly $5-billion in benefits over two years, yet slashed that forecast to just $738-million in the April 19 federal budget.
For months, the Ontario government has faced calls from a chorus of medical experts, mayors, union leaders and opposition politicians to ensure that the often precariously employed workers who perform essential labour – such as stocking shelves in grocery stores or processing packages in warehouses – have paid sick days.
Without them, some workers are forced to choose between feeding their families and losing pay to get tested for COVID-19, a scenario blamed for the rapid spread of the virus in factories and other workplaces in parts of Toronto and Peel Region, where a 13-year-old girl became one of the pandemic’s youngest victims last week.
These critics also 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.
In his letter to the federal government, Mr. Bethlenfalvy said the federal program could be improved if provinces, such as Ontario, kicked in to boost payments to those facing unemployment and loss of income during the pandemic’s third wave.
“Ontario would like to move ahead and double the benefit for every Ontario application,” he wrote in the letter to Ms. Freeland. “Specifically we would like everyone in Ontario to be eligible for $1,000 per week, as opposed to the current $500.”
Mr. Bethlenfalvy added: “We are prepared to make this commitment immediately and the province will pay the full cost of the additional top-up.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who is himself isolating after contact with a positive COVID-19 case, pledged in an emotional press conference last week that he would “fill the gaps” in the federal sick pay program, after Ottawa declined to change it in its recent budget.
Two advisers to Mr. Ford said the province has had multiple conversations with federal officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Finance Department and Canada Revenue Agency to discuss the proposal. The advisers said it is not viable for Ontario to set up a stand-alone system when Ottawa already has a program in place. They also said that Ottawa was not interested in the plan because of IT processing concerns and the challenge of adjusting a national program in a way that would apply to only one province, they said.
A senior federal official confirmed that interpretation and said Ottawa had urged Ontario to provide a tax holiday for small businesses until the fall in exchange for requiring employee-paid sick leave.
The Globe is not identifying the provincial and federal officials because they were not authorized to comment on private discussions between the two governments.
In response to questions from The Globe about Ontario’s proposal, Ms. Freeland’s press secretary Katherine Cuplinskas sent a statement that said Ottawa already offers paid sick leave benefits to federally regulated workers.
“While sick leave protections are the provincial government’s responsibility, we will continue to do whatever we can to support the people of Ontario through this aggressive third wave of the virus,” she said.
The Premier has been facing a public backlash after announcing pandemic measures – including new police powers and a ban on outdoor activities – that went against the government’s own scientific advice and that critics said would do too little to stop the third wave of COVID-19 now swamping the province’s health care system.
Ontario’s own new sick pay plan was expected to be announced as early as this week. Until recently, Mr. Ford called the idea of a provincial sick pay benefit “double dipping” and said his critics were merely “playing politics.” His government has repeatedly voted against opposition bills at Queen’s Park that would have granted sick pay – including another on Monday.
In Question Period on Monday, Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton told the legislature that the government was disappointed that Ottawa announced $100-billion in new spending in its recent budget but still offered a sick-pay benefit that amounts to below minimum wage.
“The federal government has to be our partner, has to step up and do more for workers here in Ontario,” Mr. McNaughton said.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who has called for the province to act on sick days for months, said she was stunned at the Progressive Conservative government’s lack of urgency.
“Ontarians don’t want any more excuses and they don’t want any more of the blame game,” Ms. Horwath told the legislature on Monday.
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