After months of urgent calls about the need for paid sick leave by medical professionals, labour advocates, political leaders and even top doctors from some of the province’s hardest-hit regions, the Ontario government has announced a plan to provide three paid sick days through a temporary program ending in September.
The proposed Ontario COVID-19 Worker Protection Benefit Program would pay up to $200 per day for workers who are sick, have symptoms, have a mental health issue or need to be vaccinated, and will be retroactive to April 19. The sick days would not need to be taken consecutively and no sick note is required.
If the legislation is passed, the program will be administered through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and employers will be reimbursed in full, the province says.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton also said the province has offered to provide funding to the federal government to double the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit payments, adding an additional $500 per week to eligible individuals, for a total of $1,000 per week.
Ottawa earlier this week rejected an offer by the province to top up the program, saying the federal benefit is designed to support workers who don’t have a regular employer, or as a stop gap until their province mandates paid sick days.
Last week, Premier Doug Ford pledged that Ontario would soon unveil details of a paid sick leave program, claiming it would be “the best program anywhere in North America, bar none.”
But as reported by CBC News, the Ford government initially sought to top up the federal program, rather than create its own. On the same day as Ford’s emotional news conference, Ontario’s finance minister wrote a letter to the federal government proposing to top up Canada’s sick leave benefit.
Critics have long pointed out the federal benefit pays less than a full-time minimum wage job, involves days, if not weeks, of processing time and doesn’t guarantee job security for workers who use it.
Accessible paid leave needed, science advisory table says
Following the announcement, Ontario’s Science Advisory Table responded with a brief that outlined the benefits of an effective sick pay program.
“Ontario workers need 10 days of adequate #PaidSickLeave that is easily accessible, immediately paid and supports them in following all public health measures,” Dr. Nathan Stall, a member of the table, tweeted on Wednesday.
“In the United States, the introduction of a temporary paid sick leave resulted in an estimated 50per cent reduction in the number of COVID-19 cases per state per day,” the brief points out.
Asked if the province consulted with its own science advisory table on the plan, the labour minister did not answer definitively.
“We certainly had lots of advice from the medical community,” McNaughton said, pivoting to the province’s disappointment with the lack of additional sick leave measures in the federal budget.
McNaughton was also asked why it took the province so long to respond to the repeated calls for such a measure. On that, he replied, “We moved decisively when COVID-19 hit the province … We advocated to the federal government to improve this program.”
The province has argued repeatedly that the federal program was adequate as a reason not to implement a provincial program, with Ford saying earlier this year he didn’t want to double-up on existing measures.
“We aren’t going to duplicate and waste taxpayers’ money, double dipping into their pockets,” Ford told CTV’s Your Morning on Feb. 16.
‘3 days of paid sick leave will not cut it’
The cost of the proposal announced today was not included in the provincial budget, unveiled in March.
Unlike Quebec and Prince Edward Island, where sick days are in place permanently, Ontario’s proposed program ends in just five months. The province has has passed legislation that protects workers’ jobs if they can’t work due to a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Speaking to reporters after the announcement, NDP leader Andrea Horwath said, “Three days of paid sick leave will not cut it.”
“I don’t know where the premier thinks this is the best program in North America. It certainly is not.”
Horwath also said that with just three days of sick leave proposed, she fears workers may not be able to self-isolate for the required amount of time if exposed to the virus.
The NDP leader said her party will have to look at the details of the bill before committing to voting to pass it.
Liberal MPP John Fraser also said his party will need to see the legislation before deciding whether to support it.
“For 400 days people had to make the decision between going to work sick or putting food on the table. The government didn’t have their backs and I would argue that they don’t now,” he said.
The Liberals had asked for Ontario to institute 10 paid sick days, Fraser said.
On Monday, the provincial government voted down a Liberal bill that would have required employers to provide workers with 10 paid days for medical emergencies.
According to the Opposition NDP, the vote marked the 25th time the Ford government has voted down a proposal for paid sick days in 2021 alone.
In a statement reacting to the announcement, CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn said the Ford government had “chosen chaos and confusion” over delivering the type of program Ontarians truly need.
“Everyone engaged here needs to keep fighting for real paid sick days we need: permanent, universal, employer-paid, and accessible. That demand did not let up today. Today’s announcement only makes it clearer we must fight to get what every worker so desperately needs.”
Emergency order allows patient transfers without consent
Meanwhile, Ontario reported another 3,480 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, as the Ministry of Health announced an emergency order that will allow hospitals to transfer some patients to long-term care or retirement homes without their consent.
At a morning news conference, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the move will allow hospitals to make room for a continued influx of COVID-19 patients amid the third wave gripping the province.
Transfers will only be considered for patients whose doctors have determined they no longer require hospital care, Elliott said.
“Every effort to speak with the person and their family to obtain their consent” for the transfer will be made, she added, but in “extremely rare” instances it could be done without it.
“This would be done in only the most urgent of situations, when a hospital is at risk of becoming overwhelmed.”
Elliott said hundreds of patients currently in hospital are waiting to be discharged to a long-term care home.
Transfers without consent will only take place if the patients’ medical team is confident the temporary move will not compromise their condition, she added.
Ontario Health CEO Matthew Anderson said the order will only be used in hospitals seeing major surges, and officials will try to ensure patients are sent to long-term care or retirement facilities nearby their families and communities.
“We don’t want it used,” Anderson said, stressing it is intended for limited circumstances.
Anyone transferred without consent or to a facility that is not their first choice will retain their place in line for their preferred home, and the province will wave the patient’s co-pay until they can be moved to their favoured facility.
Hospitals will try to fully immunize patients before they are moved, Elliott said.
As of yesterday, there were 877 people with COVID-related critical illnesses being treated in Ontario’s intensive care units. Of those, 605 required a ventilator to breathe. Both figures are highs for the pandemic.
The order allowing transfers to long-term care homes without consent is the government’s latest effort to ensure hospitals are able to treat growing numbers of severely ill COVID-19 patients.
Earlier this month, hospitals ramped down non-urgent procedures and were also given the authority to transfer patients to other hospitals without their consent. Health-care workers from other provinces and non-hospital settings are also now authorized to work in Ontario’s overburdened intensive care units.
The Ontario Hospital Association welcomed the latest measure.
“Hospitals are doing everything they can to maintain and sustain capacity by transferring patients out of hotspot regions and redeploying staff and resources but the pressures are unrelenting,” said association CEO Anthony Dale.
“Using temporary policy measures, it may be possible to safely and effectively increase the number of patients being discharged to a care setting more appropriate to their health needs.”
The new cases reported today include:
- 961 in Toronto (the first time in two and a half weeks the city has reported fewer than 1,000 additional infections)
- 589 in Peel Region
- 290 in York Region
- 221 in Durham Region
- 180 in Ottawa
- 116 in Halton Region
Niagara Region also reported 341 further cases and Hamilton 255. In an email, the Ministry of Health said that a “data catch-up process” resulted in artificially inflated numbers in some public health units in the Central West Region, which includes both Niagara and Hamilton. It is not clear how many older cases were included in the data, however.
The seven-day average of daily cases fell to 3,783. It has been trending downward for 11 days since its high of 4,370 on April 17.
Labs completed 50,194 tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and logged a provincewide positivity rate of 7.2 per cent.
An updated analysis by Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table shows that the provincewide R value, a measure of how many people on average a single case will go on to infect with the coronavirus, recently fell below one. An R value less than one suggests case growth is slowing rather than accelerating.
The table called it an “early, early sign” that Ontario appears to be “heading in the right direction” when it comes to transmission of the virus.
During the morning news conference, Anderson cautioned that while growth in new cases may be slowing it will take at least several weeks before the impact of that trend could be felt in hospitals.
Variants of concern — which now account for an estimated 95 per cent of all new infections in the province, according to the science table — are making people sicker than the earlier variants that dominated the first and second waves of the pandemic.
The Ministry of Health reported the deaths of 24 more people with the illness. The official death toll in Ontario is 7,988.
Meanwhile, public health units collectively administered 116,173 doses of COVID-19 vaccines yesterday. As of last night, 365,166 people in Ontario had gotten both shots.
The province has used 4,907,203, or about 87 per cent, of the 5,637,955 doses it has received to date. Just more than 389,600 of those total doses arrived in Ontario overnight.
Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, told CBC News today that eight pharmacies each in Toronto and Peel Region are expected begin offering shots of the Pfizer vaccine as early as next week. All 16 pharmacies are located in provincially-designated hot spot postal codes.
Thus far, pharmacies have only offered the AstraZeneca vaccine. Bates said he anticipates pharmacies will run out of AstraZeneca doses by the weekend.