Trudeau says Ontario sick leave should be delivered directly through employers

by Shawn Jeffords and Paola Loriggio THE CANADIAN PRESS

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.

Ottawa will help

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.

No need to duplicate

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 percent 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.

– With files from John Chidley-Hill