After days of hinting there would be an announcement on paid sick days for those impacted by COVID-19, sources not authorized to speak publicly tell Global News the Ontario government is set to unveil details.
Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton scheduled a news conference at Queen’s Park for 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday.
The announcement was set to take place hours after Ontario’s auditor general released an in-depth report looking at systemic issues in the province’s long-term care sector.
On Tuesday, Global News obtained a letter written by Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy to Deputy Prime Minister and federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland saying the provincial government is looking to provide a $500-per-week top-up to the current $500-per-week ($450 after taxes) Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) program. People can access CRSB for up to four weeks if they are required to quarantine because of COVID-19.
“It has become clear that the uptake for the CRSB is not as high as we would like to see, so we must create a greater incentive for people to use the program and stay home when they are ill or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19,” the letter said while going on to reiterate a recent criticism from the provincial government about the 2021 federal budget not addressing issues with CRSB.
“We believe that this (top-up) is the simplest and fastest way to increase program update and make this program more effective for those who are sick, don’t have employer-paid sick leave, and need this program most.”
Katherine Cuplinskas, Freeland’s press secretary, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon the CRSB is meant to be a measure for those who “fall through the cracks” because there are no benefits through their employers or in province’s where there isn’t a provincial program.
“When Ontario is ready to mandate sick leave in provincially-regulated businesses, as we have done for federally-regulated businesses, we will be there to help,” she wrote.
“In fact, the wage subsidy was designed – and is already set up – to provide employers with financial support to pay the wages of workers who are on sick leave.”
It was on Thursday when Premier Doug Ford, while self-isolating due to coming into contact with a staff member who tested positive for COVID-19, confirmed his government was working on a plan for an Ontario paid sick leave program.
“It’s going to be one of the best (programs) in conjunction with the federal government in the entire North America. I also want to remind the people of Ontario, there’s no other province in this entire country that has the program that we’re going to be laying out — nowhere close,” he told reporters when asked about the issue of paid sick days.
For months, doctors, health-care workers, and advocates have continually called for a provincial regime for provincial sick days. They pushed for such a program to operate like a wage continuance so workers would be paid as normal if they have to stay home.
They also cited issues with the requirements under the CRSB, which requires workers to apply to a program and if they qualify under certain criteria, they will be reimbursed at a later time. That delay in receiving money, advocates have said, could impact the timely payment of rent or other bills.
On April 20, Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table reiterated the need to ensure essential workers continue to receive pay if they need to stay home, are exposed to COVID-19, or need time to get a vaccine. The group said the current federal program is not enough.
“Workers who do [go to work sick or go after having been exposed to the virus] often do so because they have no choice: they must feed their families and pay their rent. Compared to other models that appear to have limited spread, the federal [Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit] is cumbersome and does not provide enough financial support,” the members wrote in an open letter.
“An emergency benefit that offers more money, is easily accessible, immediately paid and that, for the duration of the pandemic, is available to essential workers … will help limit spread.”
The government’s recent messaging on paid sick days has been a noticeable change compared to recent months.
When the provincial budget was unveiled in March, questions were raised about why the program was left out. Bethlenfalvy, at the time, pushed people to use the CRSB. Earlier in April, Ford accused people of “playing politics” with respect to calls for instituting a provincial program.
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