After weeks of increased pressure on the province to introduce paid sick leave, the Ontario government has unveiled a program that will allow workers to take three paid sick days through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ontario Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton and Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy announced the Ontario COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Benefit program on Wednesday afternoon.
The government will introduce legislation on Thursday that would require employers to provide workers with up to three days of paid sick leave for reasons related to COVID-19, including being sick, showing symptoms, going for a COVID-19 test, or getting vaccinated.
Under the program, which will be administered by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, employers will be required to pay employees up to $200 per day for up to three days per worker. The province will then reimburse employers for the paid sick days. Workers will not be required to show a sick note. The program will be retroactive to April 19 and will be in effect until September 25, 2021.
“This is a game changer and this will save lives,” McNaughton said at a press conference on Wednesday. “If we need to extend it based on the COVID situation, we would do that.”
The announcement comes as Ontario is in the midst of a third wave that has strained hospital capacity and seen a record number of cases in intensive care units across the province. Many experts, including the Ontario Science Table advising the government on its COVID-19 response, have called on the province to introduce paid sick leave in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
McNaughton also said that the province has offered to double the federal government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, which provides payments to employees who are unable to work 50 per cent of their work week because they are sick with COVID-19, need to self-isolate or have an underlying condition that puts them at greater risk of getting COVID-19. Ontario has offered to provide an additional $500 a week to bring the payments to $1,000 per week for workers that qualify.
Opposition NDP leader Andrea Horwath said Wednesday that three days of paid sick leave is “better than none” but that the program is still "a huge disappointment."
“People will still have to make really difficult decisions because three days of paid sick days is not enough,” she said. “The government could have and should have implemented paid sick days in our province from Day 1.”
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) said in a statement that while the lobby group appreciates that new, permanent costs will not be added onto small businesses, there are concerns about the government's ability to quickly reimburse companies that provide the three days of sick leave.
"Small business owners’ experiences with the Ontario Small Business Support Grant leave very little confidence that government can reimburse businesses quickly," CFIB president Dan Kelly said in a statement.
"For this sick days program to work effectively for everyone, the Ontario government must reimburse small employers within a few days, instead of several months, as many are still experiencing for the grant."
Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.