TORONTO — Ontario Premier Doug Ford doubled down on his choice not to guarantee paid sick days to private sector workers Tuesday, even though one of his top health officials says it may be contributing to “dangerous” levels of COVID-19.
The premier said the federal government already has a program for people who miss work because of COVID-19. That program pays people after the fact, providing $450 a week for a maximum of two weeks.
“We aren’t going to duplicate areas of support,” Ford said.
A reporter at Tuesday’s news conference asked him what someone should do after they hit the maximum. She used the example of a parent who takes one week off after their child was exposed to the virus, another week when they had a sore throat and required a test, and then needs more time when they actually test positive.
“Great question,” Ford told her. “We’re going to work in conjunction with the federal government to make sure that continues, the support that is needed.”
He said he’s asked federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to shorten the amount of time someone has to be off before they qualify for Employment Insurance (EI).
Ontario workers used to be entitled to 10 days off per year for illness and emergencies, two of which had to be paid. Shortly after taking power in 2018, Ford’s government cut that back to eight days and made them all unpaid.
Ontario has given workers the right to take time off without losing their jobs if they have to isolate or quarantine because of COVID-19. But the time off is unpaid.
One of the province’s top doctors said the lack of paid sick days could be contributing to the spread of COVID-19 a few hours before Ford’s comments Tuesday.
Some people don’t get paid if they take time off and may be worried about eviction, associate chief medical officer of health Dr. Barbara Yaffe said.
“That is a very important barrier that needs to be addressed so that people will do the right thing.”
Toronto’s top doctor and mayor have also called for paid sick leave. Mayor John Tory said Ontario was playing “ping pong” with the federal government.
“A ping pong game is always interesting and entertaining except when it has to do with the health of people who live in our city and who are contracting COVID-19 and who, in many cases, are the people least able to speak for themselves.”
Thousands of lives hang in the balance
Dr. Yaffe and her colleagues released new modelling that shows Ontario could see between 10,000 and 20,000 new daily COVID-19 cases by early February if growth stays the same. This would cause thousands more deaths.
“We are in a very dangerous situation now,” Dr. Yaffe said.
They reported that one quarter of Ontario’s hospitals already have full intensive care units (ICUs) and another quarter only have one or two ICU beds available.
The province-wide lockdown that started Dec. 26 didn’t stop people from going out and spreading the virus, the doctors said.
“It’s not like we’re saying people are doing this on purpose,” Dr. Yaffe said. “I think what we’re saying is people need to be supported to do the right thing.”
Ford announced a stay-at-home order and extended school closures at his press conference Tuesday. His government said it was considering another temporary moratorium on evictions and would say more in the next few days.
Opposition politicians slammed the premier, saying he shouldn’t have waited so long to impose lockdowns and calling out the lack of paid sick leave.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it was “utterly shameful and irresponsible” that Ford hasn’t budged on paid sick days, even though workers have been asking for them for the entire pandemic.
“There have to be, as a right, paid sick days for every worker in the province of Ontario,” Horwath said. “Not some process where you have to make applications, and maybe in a couple weeks you’ll be able to get a little bit of money.”
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