TORONTO — Workers in Ontario will soon be able access three paid sick days to help them self-isolate during the pandemic, but critics said the policy announced Wednesday falls far short of what's required to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Premier Doug Ford's government had for months resisted intense pressure from health experts and advocates who said paid sick leave would reduce workplace outbreaks. The province only shifted its stance recently, after the federal government left a national sick-pay benefit unchanged in this month's budget.
Labour Minister Monte McNaughton announced that a three-day sick leave policy – which will be administered through the Workplace Insurance and Safety Board – will be retroactive to April 19 and will end on Sept. 25. Employers will be reimbursed for up to $200 a day for what they pay out.
The program will be created through new legislation the government was to introduce Thursday.
"If passed, all workers will soon have access to three paid sick days," McNaughton said. "This is a game changer."
Critics were quick to note, however, that three paid sick days were far less than the 10 to 14 days health professionals recommend for a period of self-isolation due to COVID-19.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government's policy "simply will not cut it."
"(Workers) will be left making pretty much the same kind of calculation that they're being forced to make now, which is, 'I've got the sniffles, I'm not feeling all that great ... but I have to go to work because I don't have financial security to stay home,'" she said.
Horwath said her party needed to see the government's legislation before deciding whether to support it but added that it appeared inferior to an NDP private member's bill to introduce 10 paid sick days.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said he was shocked that after months of pressure, the three-day policy was all that the Ford government introduced.
He called on the the premier - who is in self-isolation after being exposed to a staff member with COVID-19 - to change the legislation to provide at least 10 paid sick days.
"I was hopeful that after the premier took taxpayer-funded paid sick days to isolate after a workplace exposure, he would have had a change of heart," he said. "But Ford’s plan falls well short of providing the protection workers need."
The CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario said the government's sick-leave program will not be enough to prevent further illness and outbreaks, and will extend the third wave of the pandemic.
Doris Grinspun said employees will use the three days but could return to work sick.
"Three days is insufficient to stop it," she said. "Therefore, we will continue with this for a couple of months at least."
The scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table agreed.
Dr. Peter Juni said that if an essential worker cashes in on one of the three sick days, they will "out" themselves as being symptomatic and could be forced to stay home for two weeks.
"If we out ourselves, we need to have the guarantee that the entire two-week period is being covered if necessary from a pandemic-control perspective or from a health perspective," he said.
But Juni applauded the government for making the process of taking these sick days seamless for workers and putting the burden to apply for the funds on employers.
He said that removes a barrier that could prevent workers from staying home when they're sick.
The president of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce called the new program a "step in the right direction" but recommended enhancements.
"Any paid sick-day program must be fully and immediately accessible to workers who need it with a quick and seamless reimbursement for employers," Rocco Rossi said in a statement.
"When workers protect themselves, they protect their colleagues, their employers, and their communities."
Last week, Ford promised the province would implement its own sick-leave program after criticizing the federal government for not enhancing its Canadian Recovery Sickness Benefit.
On Tuesday, the province offered to double that federal program to pay $1,000 a week to recipients, but asked Ottawa to administer the fund.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government was in talks with the province, but urged Ontario to work directly with employers to bring in a paid sick-leave program.
On Wednesday, McNaughton said the provincial offer to double the federal program's payments was still on the table but had not been accepted.
Advocates and experts have said a provincial program is needed because the federal program's funds take too long to arrive, individuals need to apply for the benefit, and some money is clawed back for taxes.
Ontario's pandemic science advisory table released a report late Wednesday afternoon saying the federal program is not enough to help workers self-isolate.
"The existing Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit cannot financially protect essential workers in following all public health measures, places the administrative burden of applying for the benefit on essential workers, and neither provides sufficient, nor timely payments," it said.
The group further highlighted the importance of paid sick leave.
"Paid sick leave will reduce overall cases, protect communities from the burden of COVID-19, and keep businesses open," it said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press