The signal from Premier Doug Ford that Ontario will create an enhanced paid sick leave program is being greeted with both relief and disappointment, since demands for the program have been ignored for nearly the entire pandemic.
Ford said during a Thursday news conference that his government has started work on the program after months of repeatedly insisting that an existing program offered by the federal government was sufficient.
He now says the federal program, which provides $450 per week for a maximum of four weeks and pays workers only after their period of absence, is inadequate.
"We're now working on our own solution to fill those gaps for everyone in Ontario," said Ford, who spoke outside his late mother's home in Etobicoke, where he is isolating after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
"I assure you, it is not lost on me that unlike many people I'm able to isolate and continue working. For too many people right now, that's not the case," he said.
The Ford government recently voted down a bill by the Ontario NDP that would have granted all workers access to paid sick days provided by their employers. Earlier this month, Ford also accused sick leave advocates of "playing politics." The debate is happening against the backdrop of a third wave of COVID-19 with record daily case numbers and overflowing intensive care units.
Ontario has not yet shared any details about how the program will function or when it will become available, besides saying that it "will not impose any additional burden on the backs of Ontario businesses."
Calls for sick leave date back more than a year
A wide cross-section of voices including Ontario's own science advisory table, local public health units, municipal politicians, Opposition parties, medical associations and labour groups have repeatedly called on the provincial government to create a paid sick leave program.
Proponents say a universal paid sick leave program would drive down transmission rates by making it easier for workers who are ill to stay home without losing income.
"It's definitely welcome news but at the same time, [there is] a lot of frustration that it took so many lives and the health of essential workers to reach this conclusion," said Dr. Amanpreet Brar, a general surgery resident at the University of Toronto who has been loudly advocating for paid sick leave.
"Paid sick leave policy is certainly going to be one of the policies that will curb transmission and hopefully decrease the spread of COVID-19," Brar added.
Toronto's Board of Health called on the province to "permanently ensure that sufficient paid sick leave is available to all workers who must quarantine or self-isolate," on May 7, 2021, exactly 350 days before Ford's Thursday news conference.
Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union, made a similar demand in March 2020.
"It's clear that the government does not want to do this, but they're under siege," said Unifor national president Jerry Dias. "If the government is perceived as backpedalling, I actually don't care, I just want it done."
According to a report by the Decent Work and Health Network, 58 per cent of Canadian workers do not have access to paid sick days. The figure climbs to 70 per cent among workers who earn less than $25,000 annually.
What should the program look like?
Advocates for enhanced paid sick leave say the program must offer workers a seamless way to stay home when ill without losing their regular paycheque.
Dias suggested employers could initially foot the bill for workers' absences before receiving a rebate from the province at a later date.
Brar said the program must also be offered to workers at temporary employment agencies and migrant workers, who typically have poor access to workplace benefits.
She said the program should also become a permanent fixture, especially when considering the emerging threat of coronavirus variants.
"I'm worried that if we only have something temporary, we're not going to be able to prevent future outbreaks."