Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears open to Premier Doug Ford’s $1-billion bid to double sick-pay benefits by enabling Queen’s Park to bolster the existing federal program.
Under fire for months due to the lack of a provincial paid sick-leave plan, Ford offered to increase the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB), which pays $500 a week to ill workers, up to $1,000.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday, Trudeau pointedly did not rule out the unusual arrangement that would allow a provincial government to enrich a federal benefit.
The prime minister said Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland “is engaged directly with the province of Ontario to support them as they look at further measures to ensure that nobody has to make the choice of going to work sick.”
Trudeau said Freeland is working with Ford “to ensure that the right supports get there as quickly as possible.”
But he emphasized that provinces should also be using federal supports to enact protections for workers in their area of jurisdiction as Ottawa did in federally regulated sectors.
“We have people’s backs. We need to work together. The provinces need to look at the way to deliver paid sick leave directly through employers, which the federal government can’t do,” said Trudeau.
In a letter last Thursday, provincial Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy implored Freeland to allow Queen’s Park to top up the CRSB.
“As part of Ontario’s plan to address gaps in the programs available for workers, Ontario would like to move ahead and double the benefit for every Ontario application,” Bethlenfalvy wrote in a missive first reported by the Globe and Mail and also obtained by the Star.
“Specifically we would like everyone in Ontario to be eligible for $1,000 per week, as opposed to the current $500,” the provincial treasurer continued.
“The third wave of the pandemic has hit our country and our province hard. We need to do everything we can to help keep people safe and to protect our health-care system from collapsing.”
Bethlenfalvy said “we are prepared to make this commitment immediately and the province will pay the full cost of the additional top-up.”
His letter was sent the same day as an emotional Ford vowed “to come up with a very strong program to protect the workers” to encourage sick workers to stay home to curb the spread of the virus that has killed nearly 8,000 Ontarians in 13 months.
“We’re going to take actions ourselves and we will have the best program anywhere in North America, bar none,” the premier said Thursday from his late mother’s Etobicoke home, where he is self-isolating until the middle of next week due to a workplace COVID-19 exposure.
Ford, who had his first AstraZeneca on April 9, tested negative for COVID-19 last week after a top staffer tested positive. The young male aide is recovering at home.
Queen’s Park requires Ottawa’s co-operation to administer the enhanced program even though at least $1 billion in provincial funds would top up the benefit and fill in any gaps for workers who book off sick while awaiting COVID-19 tests.
“The way the federal legislation is written, if we did our own top up we would disqualify Ontarians from the federal program,” a senior provincial official told the Star on Tuesday.
With that it mind, “the fastest, best way to do this is for the federal government to increase payments and we will reimburse them,” said the insider.
But that means Ottawa has to agree.
British Columbia Premier John Horgan said his province is also looking at ways to “supplement the work the federal government has already done and will meet the needs of working people.”
Horgan, who has not yet conferred with Ford on this, stressed the current federal program “clearly (has) gaps.”
Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said he remains “an optimist” a deal can be reached.
“It also covers a broader range of workers across the province … gig workers for example and the self-employed,” said McNaughton.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath blasted the government for its lack of urgency.
“They have to stop this political back-and-forth, they have to stop pretending that this is not their responsibility,” said Horwath.
Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, said it is “frustrating” Ontario and other provinces are making paid sick days “more complicated.”
Yussuff said Ford should amend Ontario’s Employment Standards Act to require employers to allow paid sick days for workers to take a day to go get tested and to take two or three days to get results back.
“That is the most effective way of fighting the pandemic and protecting workers,” the labour leader said, noting the provincial government could reimburse employers.
“The dithering and the blaming is simply unacceptable,” he said.
So far, about 300,000 Ontario workers have tapped into the CRSB since it came into effect last fall, but users complain it is clumsy to use and slow to pay benefits.
Adding insult to injury, Ottawa deducts $50 in taxes from the $500 weekly payment so it nets out at $450.
McNaughton noted that is “less than minimum wage” in Ontario.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Ford’s gambit falls well short of the seamless program that workers — particularly in essential industries — need to stay safe and curb the spread of COVID-19.
“The very best he could come up with is a letter passing the buck to the federal government?” said Del Duca.
“It’s because Doug Ford doesn’t believe in paid sick leave. I don’t think he trusts the workers of Ontario.”
On Monday, the Tories used their majority to defeat Liberal MPP Michael Coteau’s bid to give 10 paid days for essential employees in Ontario — just as they have derailed NDP MPP Peggy Sattler’s repeated efforts for provincial paid leave.