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Advisers urge Doug Ford government to create ‘portable’ benefits plan for Ontario workers

Advisers urge Doug Ford government to create 'portable' benefits plan for Ontario workers-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
The government of Premier Doug Ford will on Thursday release a report it commissioned to address the changing nature of employment in Ontario, including workplace issues that came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Advisers appointed by the Doug Ford government want Ontario to create a “portable” benefits program for workers who move between jobs without health, dental or other insurance coverage, CBC News has learned.

The recommendation is one of 21 in a report from the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee, to be unveiled later Thursday. Government officials provided CBC News with a copy ahead of its public release.

The advisers are also recommending changes to Ontario’s employment laws so people who work for apps like Uber and DoorDash are guaranteed a minimum wage.

The government commissioned the report in June to address the changing nature of employment, including workplace issues that came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the Ford government is not immediately acting on the recommendations, the minister who appointed the panel is welcoming the proposals with enthusiasm.

Uber worker-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
The Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee is recommending changes to the province’s employment laws to ensure that people who work for apps such as Uber and Skip The Dishes are guaranteed a minimum wage. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

“We have to dig into this and really get this right and see how we can ensure that more workers out there have benefits and more take home pay,” said Labour, Training and Skills Development Minister Monte McNaughton in an interview.

McNaughton said he is “really excited about” the benefits proposal.

The report recommends that Ontario “appoint an expert to design and test a portable benefits program, where contributors could be employers, workers and the government.”

Such a system “could help businesses attract workers and make their futures less uncertain,” says the report.

“A portable benefits program could increase benefit levels and access in areas such as pharmacare, life insurance, vision care and mental health services,” the report adds. “One option might see portable benefits reside with the worker and be administered by an independent body, through government, the private sector, or some combination.”

Hiring-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
Although employment in Canada has returned to pre-pandemic levels, survey data suggests up to half of all jobs in the country do not provide workplace benefits such as prescription drug coverage or dental care. (Sam Nar/CBC)

With the spread of ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft, and the pandemic-driven explosion in demand for food deliveries, there’s been a surge in the number of people working for online platforms without the rights that employees get under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act.

For those app-based workers, the report recommends creating a new category under the Employment Standards Act of dependent contractor, with “basic employment rights such as termination pay, minimum wage, minimum or core benefits, regular payment of wages, pay stubs for pay accountability and notice of termination with severance entitlements.”

That stops short of the call from Gig Workers United, a union-backed group of people who drive and deliver for apps. It wants platform workers to be classified as employees with the right to vacation pay and the requirement for the employer to contribute Employment Insurance and Canada Pension Plan premiums.

The government-commissioned report says the app companies’ contracts are complicated and unclear on how much a worker will earn for each task and how they get selected for jobs.

The advisers recommend requiring the app companies to provide easy-to-understand transparency on payments, the allocation of gigs, and the reasons for penalizing or suspending workers from the platform.

Ontario Minister of Labour-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
Ontario Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development Monte McNaughton says he is excited by the proposal for a portable workplace benefits package but is not acting on the recommendation immediately. (Radio-Canada)

McNaughton isn’t promising he’ll grant employment rights to app workers, but is dangling the prospect of some action.

“Every single worker in Ontario should be making at least a minimum wage. They should know how they’re paid, when they’re going to be paid,” said McNaughton.

“My message to those gig companies, Uber, Skip The Dishes and others: if you don’t look after your workers, we’re going to step in and make sure that those workers are looked after.”

Wendy Cukier, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Ryerson University and the academic research lead for the Future Skills Centre, has studied the changing nature of gig employment.

“Racialized people, newcomers, and so on, are often forced into these kinds of survival jobs,” Cukier told CBC Radio’s The Current last week.

“They’re often the ones that are the most vulnerable because they don’t have the labour protections. They’re not developing access to things like pensions and unemployment insurance and other supports that regular workers would come to expect.”

Uber app-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
Pre-pandemic research by Statistics Canada found 10 per cent of the labour force in the Toronto area were gig workers, including some who drive or deliver for app-based companies. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Cukier says her biggest concern about gig work is employers using it as a way to bypass labour standards. But she believes the idea of portable benefits for workers moving from job to job has a lot of promise.

“The old model of working for one employer for 30 years, that’s sort of gone by the wayside,” she said.

Cukier would prefer to see a portable benefits program administered by an arm’s-length organization that collects contributions from both employers and workers, with the workers accessing their benefits regardless of whom they’re working for.

McNaughton is due to release the report publicly at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at a news conference in Toronto.

Thursday is the last day that MPPs sit at Queen’s Park in 2021, so the government’s next opportunity to introduce any workplace legislation would be in late February. The Ontario Legislature can hold a maximum of eight sitting weeks in 2022 before it must be dissolved in early May for the election campaign.

Last week, the legislature passed McNaughton’s Working For Workers Act, which includes new rules governing temp agencies and requirements that employers with 25 or more staff develop disconnecting-from-work policies.

CBC

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