After widespread outrage at Ontario’s response to the third wave of the pandemic, culminating in angry reactions to the death of 13 year-old Emily Viegas last week, Doug Ford finally announced his government’s plan for paid sick days on April 28. Prior to the announcement, Ford promised that it would be “the best program anywhere in North America, bar none.” The plan fell decidedly short of the hype.
Under the proposed COVID-19 Putting Workers First Act, employees will be provided with three days off for COVID-related reasons, including getting tested, getting vaccinated, being sick, or taking care of a family member. Employees will be paid up to $200 a day, and employers will be reimbursed by the government. The program will be in effect temporarily, up until September 25. At the same time, Ford’s government is trying to offer a $500-a week “top-up” to the Federal Canadian Response Benefit (CRB). This is consistent with Ford’s line since the start of the pandemic, that the CERB and CRB—programs designed to support workers who have lost employment due to COVID-19—are a sufficient replacement for paid sick days.
Ford’s plan is clearly insufficient. Three days is not enough time to cover the recommended two-week self-isolation period for those experiencing COVID symptoms. The Ontario Science Advisory Table’s own recommendation is for 10 days of paid leave. When asked at a press conference if the government consulted with its science advisors, Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton did not confirm that they did.
Moreover, there is no reason why the cost of the program, expected to be between $750 million to $1.5 billion, should fall on the taxpayers instead of the employer. This sets up workers to face austerity down the line to pay for the program, while employers continue to rake in profits and government subsidies. Ontario workers still do not have paid sick days for non-COVID-related illnesses, and after the program expires in September, they will be left with none at all.
Prior to this week’s announcement, the Ford government had voted down 25 proposals for paid sick days in 2021 alone. The fact that they are putting forward any plan at all is a sign that they are feeling the pressure from angry Ontarians. However, instead of implementing the program that workers need to stay safe and healthy, they are surrendering by inches, trying to give up as little as possible. This is not acceptable.
In a statement on the plan, CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn said, “Everyone engaged here needs to keep fighting for the 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.” This is true. The question is how to fight effectively. Tabling more legislation and writing to members of parliament will not get Ontario workers the action that we need, as the government continues to drag its feet every step of the way. The Tories are now feeling the pressure. With mass work refusals and stay-home strikes, led by the labour movement, Ontario workers can deliver the knock-out blow.