Ontario's sick day program expires next week. Here's what we know
Ontario’s temporary sick day program is set to expire at the end of March and officials remain tight lipped over whether they will extend the program, saying instead the policy has “filled its purpose” and remains “status quo.”
The province’s temporary sick day program, which gave employees three days off total to recover from COVID-19, was put in place in April 2021 in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19 in essential workplaces.
The program also provided eligible workers up to $200 a day if they needed to get tested, vaccinated, self-isolate or care for a family member.
It was originally meant to last six months but was extended multiple times. It is now set to expire after March 31.
In an interview with CTV News Toronto last week, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton would not say if the program would be extended yet again or made permanent.
“The paid sick day program is in place and businesses have been reimbursed within two weeks for those paid sick days,” he said.
“As of right now, it's status quo.”
McNaughton reiterated this statement when asked by reporters on Monday.
“It's the status quo as we speak,” he said again.
“The paid sick day program that we announced a couple of years ago approximately has now served over 500,000 workers. We'll have more to say about that, but certainly the program has worked and filled its purpose.”
The ministry told CTV News Toronto on Monday that as of March 3, the government has reimbursed about $235 million as part of the program.
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Health advocates and opposition parties have long argued the temporary program was not a strong enough measure to prevent the spread of highly-transmissible illnesses such as COVID-19.
In April 2021, the head of the now-defunct Ontario COVID-19 Science Table said that a “strong, effective sick pay” would last two work weeks, which equals about 10 days. At the time, the province’s isolation period after contracting the novel coronavirus was 14 days.
While the pandemic may be starting to wane in the province, emergency and family physician Dr. Bernard Ho argues a lack of permanent paid sick days remains a critical factor in relieving the strain on Ontario’s health-care system.
“I think it's a key component of our public health response, not only to the pandemic, but in general,” he told CTV News Toronto. “I think it would be very hard to fix the burden of our health-care system right now, fix the overcrowding and the long wait times, the staffing shortages, if we don't implement permanent and adequate, paid sick days.”
“Even if and when the pandemic is over, there are still other respiratory illnesses, other infectious illnesses and other chronic conditions too that require workers to sometimes stay at home because they're not able to work.”
Ho said he recently saw a family of four who had all contracted the same respiratory illness because one of them caught it from a coworker.
“She passed it on to the mom, who passed it on to her husband and her two sons, and none of them could afford to stay home without paid leave,” Ho said. “They all went back to work and this is only contributing to the transmission of respiratory diseases like COVID.”
Ho is a member of the Decent Work and Health Network, a group that advocates for better working and employment conditions in Ontario. The group recently released a report that calls not only for 10 permanent sick days in the province, but for that number to be increased to 14 days in the event of another pandemic.
The network stresses, however, that it should be employers who foot the bill and not taxpayers; something that concerns the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB).
A survey of its members, which includes about 38,000 small and medium size companies, found that 80 per cent could not afford to pay for sick days themselves.
“They simply cannot afford it,” Julie Kwiecinski, director of provincial affairs at CFIB, said in an interview. “Let's not forget that we're still in a period of recovery for many small businesses.”
“We know from previous reports that the cost for a small business to comply per employee with rules and regulations is about five times greater than it is for big business.”
A man holds up a sign as a group advocating for Provincially mandated paid sick days for workers participates in a 'die-in' rally outside Queens Park in Toronto, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston
These employers would support an extension of the paid sick day program as it stands–paid fully by the Ontario government–as long as it is amended to include all other illnesses rather than remain focused on COVID-19.
GOVERNMENT VOTED DOWN SICK DAY BILL
In an interview with CTV News Toronto, Liberal MPP Dr. Adil Shamji said that even if the program is extended, three days is not enough for most workers.
“Three simply isn't enough for individuals getting sick, for parents to be able to look after their children who gets sick repeatedly,” he said.
“We're still seeing high levels of COVID in our community right now and we know that respiratory illnesses wax and wane … it won't be long before we enter in our next flu season or next respiratory season and we'll be facing the exact same kinds of challenges and pressures that we did earlier this year.”
In November 2022, the Progressive Conservatives voted down a NDP bill that would have provided all employees with 10 days of paid sick leave per calendar year. It’s a piece of legislation the political party has tried multiple times to push through, with no success.
“We're getting down to the down to the wire now and people are going to be wondering what's happening after the end of March,” NDP Leader Marit Stiles said.
“I would like to see them extend the program but of course we've also been pushing very hard for 10 paid sick days, permanent paid sick days, for all Ontarians.”
The federal government implemented a 10-day sick leave in November, but only for those employed in a federally-regulated private sector workplace.
There is no province or territory in Canada that offers 10 paid sick days a year.
The Ontario government is expected to present its budget for 2023 on March 23.
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