A bill that will provide workers in Ontario with three paid sick days passed unanimously into law on Thursday to stem the spread of COVID-19, despite widespread concerns that the plan is inadequate.
The Ford government tabled the legislation following months of public pressure to create a plan to allow sick workers to stay home home as a way to reduce outbreaks of the novel coronavirus and curb community transmission.
But Deena Ladd, executive director of Workers Action Centre, says the bill is “incredibly lacking.”
“Three days are better than nothing, but why does it have to be that bad?” she said, adding that three provincially funded sick days won’t be enough to cover even a potential bout of COVID-19.
On Wednesday, the government announced it will reimburse employers up to $200 a day for what they pay workers who are sick, have symptoms, have a mental health issue or need to be vaccinated. The new policy will be retroactive to April 19 and end on Sept. 25. The program will be administered through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), the province said.
On Thursday, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton called the temporary measure “the most comprehensive plan in the entire country.”
“We’re going to be with workers and small businesses every step of the way until we defeat COVID-19,” he said.
But the new Worker Income Protection Benefit (WIPB) falls far short of what labour advocates like Ladd, medical professionals and health-care workers have been calling for.
3 days not enough, advisory table says
Ontario’s science advisory table released new modelling Thursday that suggests the province could see new daily COVID-19 cases decreasing to around 1,000 per day by June.
But that figure requires best-case assumptions, including “effective sick pay,” which the table has long described as covering 10 days.
When asked by a reporter Thursday if three days are enough to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases in the province, the table’s co-chair, Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, replied with a terse, “No.”
Workers need access to 10 paid days so they don’t have to choose between staying home when sick and paying their bills, he said.
“It’s a good start, but it doesn’t reflect the assumptions that we’ve made based on the programs we’ve seen elsewhere,” Brown said of the government’s plan.
WATCH| Reporter asks science advisory table co-chair if Ford government’s sick day plan is effective:
Meanwhile, the opposition peppered Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government with questions about the bill at Queen’s Park Thursday.
Leading the barrage during question period was NDP leader Andrea Horwath, who called the bill “pathetically inadequate,” especially for a disease “that makes people sick for at least 14 days.”
“Just like the premier is doing. Let’s face it, he’s on day 10 of his quarantine, and he hasn’t lost a penny in terms of his paycheque. That’s what every worker deserves,” she said. She was referring to Ford having to self-isolate last week after one of his staffers tested positive for COVID-19.
The NDP voted in favour of the bill on Thursday, but vowed to continue to push for more.
Minimum-wage workers will lose money, advocate says
Peggy Nash, a former NDP MP and current chair of the Ryerson Centre for Labour Management, describes the province’s plan as long overdue, but says it doesn’t go far enough for workers.
“If, like [Ford], they have to quarantine, or if they actually have COVID, there isn’t that support.”
Meantime, the Workers Action Centre has a range of concerns, from the impermanence of the program to the number of paid days. In addition, minimum-wage workers are going to be negatively impacted by the WIPB, says Ladd, the centre’s executive director.
“Workers cannot receive both the WIPB and the [Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit] (CRSB) in the same week, so those who need to stay home for the entire week will still be left taking unpaid days and must forgo income support through CRSB,” Ladd said.
She says minimum-wage workers end up losing more than $200 in gross weekly income under Ford’s plan in situations where they must continue to stay home after three days, if they test positive for COVID-19 or have to self-isolate.
“We just can’t believe the incompetence in actually creating a program that is worse off for minimum wage earners. It’s shocking,” Ladd said.
In a statement, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, says the WIPB gives employees choice and flexibility.
“Employees can choose the program for a single day if they need to get vaccinated or up to three days if, for example, their child is sent home from school with COVID-19 symptoms,” the statement reads.
“The COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Benefit allows employees to make a decision to take paid leave days up to two weeks after they take the days in order to choose what is best for their families.”
However, to qualify for the federal program (CRSB), an eligible employee must not have received paid leave from their employer during the same week.”
Businesses concerned about slow reimbursement for employers
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, McNaughton said the province has offered to cover the cost of doubling the CRSB payments, adding an additional $500 per week to eligible individuals, for a total of $1,000 per week.
But Dr. Peter Jüni, the director of Ontario’s science advisory table, has concerns over what he calls a fragmented system where people will still need to rely on the CRSB once the three days are used up.
“Let’s bury the federal program as it never worked because of its administrative clumsiness,” Jüni said, adding that the provincial plan is a good start because the administrative burden is not placed on the workers, but on the employers.
As for actual impact on the spread of COVID-19: “If it would stay fragmented as it is, it would be zero,” Jüni said.
Dan Kelly, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, is relieved the government will reimburse small businesses, but he fears those cheques will be as slow in coming as the province’s small business grants.
“It’s taken months for money to leave the province and get into the hands of a business owner and so this reimbursement schedule really needs to be done quickly if we’re not going to want to push more businesses into bankruptcy.”