By Robert BenzieQueen’s Park Bureau Chief
Thu., Sept. 9, 2021timer3 min. read
updateArticle was updated 11 hrs ago
Pandemic paid sick leave is working.
That’s the message from Labour Minister Monte McNaughton, who has extended until year’s end a temporary provincial program that was supposed to end Sept. 25.
“It’s one of the resources we have to fight COVID-19,” McNaughton said in an interview Thursday.
More than 121,000 workers have tapped into the “worker income protection benefit” since it was launched in April, after an outcry from critics who felt the federal paid sick leave scheme was insufficient.
While Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy had set aside as much as $2 billion for the provincial plan, so far it has only cost the treasury $37.2 million.
“We’re averaging $2.3 million a week,” said McNaughton, stressing he “never bought into” the idea that the paid leave would be misused.
“I trust workers and this speaks to that. We’re beating back these myths that people would abuse this. That isn’t happening,” he said.
Under the Ontario plan, workers without employment benefits can receive up to three days of paid leave — to a maximum of $200 daily — with Queen’s Park reimbursing businesses for that wage cost within two weeks.
The typical claim value is $154 a day, and applicants are taking an average of two days off.
Most work in retail, administrative or support jobs, and manufacturing. The top three areas for claims are Mississauga, downtown Toronto, and North York.
Employees can use the benefit when they are ill or if they need time to get vaccinated.
“We’re promoting this online (in ads) every day: get vaccinated and stay home when you are sick,” the minister said.
But McNaughton, who touted his work with the leaders of private- and public-sector unions, said employees need a stronger safety net.
“I believe in pensions and benefits for workers. We want to spread opportunities more widely and fairly,” he said, insisting Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives are more union-friendly than some previous Tory governments.
“I’ve been a partner (with the labour movement). I was the first (PC) labour minister to march in the Labour Day parade for many years. Jerry Dias, Smokey Thomas, and others — I talk to them all the time.”
Dias is the president of Unifor, which also represents workers at the Toronto Star, and Thomas is the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
“If I have to break some stigmas (about unions) within the Tory movement then so be it,” said McNaughton.
Indeed, the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 9,579 Ontarians since March 2020, appears to have led the Conservatives to reconsider previously held views on workers’ benefits.
Upon winning power in 2018, the Tories cancelled the two days of mandated paid sick leave introduced by former premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals — even though that benefit was covered by businesses not the provincial treasury.
Earlier this year, Ford resisted calls from doctors, epidemiologists, union leaders, opposition parties, mayors and pundits to implement an Ontario-specific paid sick leave program to complement the clunky federal benefit.
The premier warned it could lead to “double dipping” and wasteful duplication.
When Ford finally relented during the pandemic’s third wave in April, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath wryly noted the toll of delay.
“In the year it took the government to capitulate on paid sick days, 455,000 people were infected and nearly 8,000 died of COVID-19,” Horwath said at the time.
“This action is coming far too late. Too late to stop COVID-19 from getting out of control. too late for workers who have already gotten sick.”
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca pointed out in April that “the dithering and delaying will go down as an unforgivable failure of Doug Ford’s leadership.”