by Markus O’Brien Fehr, Chief of Staff
You’d be excused for losing track of the fast changing policy of paid sick days in Ontario. They were introduced in 2017 by the Provincial government, only to be eliminated by a new government less than a year later. As a critical public health tool throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue came back in a big way in 2020. This week the provincial government has introduced a new sick leave program, despite voting against one only a few days prior. Are we finally on the right track? The answer is a resounding “sort of.”
Two thirds of jobs in Ontario don’t come with paid sick leave. Most of those are minimum wage jobs, whose workers on the front lines are dramatically over-represented in COVID-19 case counts. Ensuring that all workers have access to at least a few paid sick days will make it much more likely that they will take time off to get tested for COVID-19, or to get vaccinated, slowing virus transmission. The Province will reimburse costs up to $200/day to employers to ensure that small businesses don’t get hit with an additional burden.
In Canada, only Quebec and PEI currently require paid sick days. To the government’s credit, Ontario is jumping ahead of the standard in other provinces offering three days. Quebec offers only two paid days while PEI offers only one. Ontario’s program however is only scheduled to last for five months, so this status may be short lived.
And what about all the people that are actually sick? For anyone diagnosed with COVID-19, a quarantine of at least 14 days is required. The duration of the Ontario program still puts workers in a position where they may need to choose between staying home while sick and putting food on the table for themselves or their family.
The Federal government offers the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) of $500/week for up to four weeks to fill this gap. But it requires workers, rather than employers, to file all of the necessary paperwork and applications to the program have, thus far, been very low. The weekly benefits of the Federal program are also well below the minimum wage in Ontario.
It would seem that this is a critical moment for the Provincial and Federal governments to align these programs. If the programs could support one another, it should be possible to bridge the gap between these programs to offer more complete coverage over a longer period of time.
The ugliest part is having to ask why this took so long in the first place. The Province’s Science Table and advocates, including Toronto City Council, have been calling for paid sick leave as a critical part of reducing the spread of COVID-19 since the pandemic first began. After more than 463,000 infections in Ontario and over 8,000 deaths, along with massive closures disrupting the finances, education and mental health of millions more, the Provincial government still has a lot to answer for.