Lower-income employees are financially worse off with Ontario’s new paid COVID-19 leave: lawyer

Employees cannot take both Ontario’s new benefit and Canada Response Sickness Benefit in same week

Lower-income employees are financially worse off with Ontario’s new paid COVID-19 leave: lawyer
Lior Samfiru is co-founding partner at employment law Samfiru Tumarkin LLP

Ontario’s new three-day paid sick leave program is fundamentally flawed and poorly conceived, says Lior Samfiru, Toronto-based employment lawyer and co-founding partner at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP.

Samfiru criticizes the province’s new worker income protection benefit program for failing to provide an actual financial benefit for lower-income employees who are significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and for leaving such employees worse off financially than if the program had not been implemented at all.

“The temporary plan that Ontario announced and passed last week falls short of where it needs to be to provide meaningful support to those workers hardest hit by the pandemic,” Samfiru says.

The new benefit program, announced by Ontario’s labour, training and skills development ministry in a news release on Apr. 28 and effected via amendment to the Employment Standards Act, 2000 on Apr. 29, is retroactive to Apr. 19 and effective until Sept. 25, the date for the expiry of the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit program.

Ontario’s program requires employers to pay employees a maximum of $200 a day for up to three days of paid infectious disease emergency leave, in addition to the employees’ entitlement to unpaid infectious disease emergency leave. The three days need not be consecutive. The province will then reimburse employers.

The new leave benefit is applicable to certain COVID-19-related reasons, including being sick with COVID-19, taking a COVID-19 test, waiting at home for the test results, receiving COVID-19 vaccination, experiencing side effects from vaccination and self-isolating as advised by the employer, a medical practitioner or another specified authority.

Employees can also take the leave to care for or to support certain relatives for COVID-19-related reasons, including if these relatives are sick with COVID-19, displaying symptoms or self-isolating as advised by an authority.

Samfiru notes that an employee cannot access benefits from both Ontario’s worker income protection benefit program and from the Canada Response Sickness Benefit program during the same week.

Samfiru says that Ontario’s program is flawed because it pays less than the federal program for workers earning less than $43,000, or $165 per day. Because such employees cannot access both the provincial and federal benefits within the same week, they consequently receive less money by accessing Ontario’s benefits, he says.

Another flaw Samfiru identifies is that Ontario’s program provides only $100 more than the federal program. For example, an employee quarantining for two weeks may access Ontario’s benefit on the first week to receive up to $600, then may rely on the federal benefit on the second week to receive $500, for a total amount of $1,100. Thus, even if the employee received the maximum of $600 for the Ontario benefit, they will see an improvement of only $100, before taxes.

Samfiru recommends certain changes to fix the program. He urged the Ontario government to bypass the workplace by directly paying employees instead of reimbursing employers, to offer more than three paid sick days to affected employees and to negotiate with the federal government so that Ontario’s employees can receive both the provincial and the federal benefits within the same period of time.

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