TORONTO — Ontario should work directly with employers to bring in a paid sick-leave program, the prime minister said Tuesday as the province made clear it wanted to top up an existing federal benefit to deliver on its promise of sick days for all workers.
Critics slammed Premier Doug Ford’s government for failing to come up with its own plan to implement the long-demanded measure, which experts have said would help curb workplace spread of COVID-19.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa was in talks with Ontario but suggested the province work with the businesses it regulates to implement its own program, as his government did with federally regulated workplaces.
“We need to work together and provinces need to look at the way to deliver a sick leave directly through employers, which the federal government can’t do,” he said.
Earlier Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Ottawa will help when Ontario is ready to mandate a sick-leave program for provincially regulated businesses.
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.
Ford promised last Thursday that Ontario would bring in its own program after the federal government did not enhance its existing benefit in its latest budget.
That same day, however, Ontario’s finance minister wrote Ottawa to ask for their co-operation to top up the federal measure.
Peter Bethlenfalvy said Ontario would give the federal government funding to double its existing benefit if Ottawa would administer the topped-up payment to workers in the province. The move would give $1,000 a week to eligible workers, he wrote.
Ontario’s labour minister said Tuesday that changing the federal program would be the fastest and simplest way to help workers.
“There’s no reason for any province across the country to duplicate that infrastructure,” said Monte McNaughton.
“We’re willing to pay 100 per cent of the cost to double this program, to make it retroactive for 60 days, and get cheques out the door as quickly as possible.”
The Ford government has been heavily criticized for failing to bring a provincial sick-leave program during the pandemic. The recent COVID-19 death of a 13-year-old Brampton, Ont., girl whose father is an essential worker renewed calls for an Ontario program.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it’s clear the federal government had “rebuffed” the province’s request.
“That’s not going to stop the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces and it’s not going to stop the deaths,” she said.
Liberal House Leader John Fraser said the Ford government isn’t doing the hard work required to create its own paid sick day program.
“It’s a lazy approach,” he said.
Ontario reported 3,265 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 29 more deaths linked to the virus. While the number of new cases was slightly lower than figures reported in recent days, the positivity rate was high, at 10.2 per cent.
Hospitals remained under immense pressure, with the province reporting 2,336 people admitted with the virus. There were 875 patients in intensive care, with 589 on a ventilator.
Health-care workers from Newfoundland and Labrador arrived in Toronto to help on Tuesday, as did three teams of nurses and medical technicians from the military.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the military teams will help relieve the strain on hospitals.
“The Armed Forces personnel would be helping with the transportation, with the administrative issues, logistical issues,” she said. “There might be some medical assistance, but that would be to backfill more in hospitals so that the more experienced nurses …. have the ability to move into the intensive care units.”
The province is also expected to receive further help.
Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said 62 health workers from departments across the country had been identified as “potential volunteers” for Ontario.
The Canadian Red Cross is set to provide 13 nurses with intensive care and emergency response experience, as well as up to 30 more in the future, he added.
Meanwhile, Ontario made changes to its COVID-19 vaccine eligibility Tuesday, saying residents aged 45 and older in more than 100 hots-spot neighbourhoods could book shots at mass immunization clinics.
It also said child-care workers employed in a licensed child-care setting will be able to book vaccines starting Thursday, and those in unlicensed settings can set up appointments in the coming weeks.
Daycare workers had been pushing to be prioritized for a shot, noting that they worked closely with young children who don’t wear masks.
The executive co-ordinator of the Association of Early Childhood Educators Ontario welcomed Tuesday’s news.
“(Childcare workers) have really felt throughout this pandemic like they’ve been left behind,” Alana Powell said. “This shows them that their work matters.”
The Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care said the change in eligibility will be a relief for many workers.
“It’s a smart move to prioritize them,” said Carolyn Ferns, public policy and government relations co-ordinator for the group.
– with files from John Chidley-Hill
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords and Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press