The Ontario government will introduce legislation to ensure no workers loses their jobs because they must miss work due to the coronavirus crisis, Premier Doug Ford announced Monday.
But the legislation, which hasn’t yet been written, won’t force employers to pay workers if they must miss work because of COVID-19 — instead, the process will be done through the federal Employment Insurance (EI) program. But that setup fails to protect large numbers of precarious workers, said opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“Unfortunately, (the planned legislation) falls short,” Horwath said.
The law would apply to workers being investigated or treated for COVID-19, those in isolation or quarantine, those acting in accordance with public health information or direction, those directed by their employer not to work, and those who need to care for someone due to COVID-19. It will also help parents who have to stay home to watch children whose schools are closed, and people with compromised immune systems who must self-isolate to stay safe, said Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton.
“No one should lose their job because they listened to the best advice of medical professionals,” McNaughton said at a news conference, flanked by Ford, Finance Minister Rod Phillips, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer.
“This measure would be retroactive to Janu. 25, 2020,” McNaughton said. “It will be in place until this disease is defeated.”
The legislation will also mean employers can no longer force employees to provide a sick note, a move that the Ford government had introduced in 2018.
It’s not immediately clear how quickly the Progressive Conservative government will be able to draft and pass the law.
Horwath said it doesn’t appear that the planned law would protect gig-economy workers. It also wouldn’t protect those who wouldn’t be able to make rent or mortgage payments with EI.
“No one should lose their job because they listened to the best advice of medical professionals,” Ontario's labour minister said, flanked by the premier, two other ministers and the province's top medical official. But is the government doing enough?
“Those are financial hits,” she said. “(The pandemic) is going to continue to get worse before it gets better.”
In response to questions about whether rent payments and others might be suspended, Ford said nothing is off the table but didn’t give details on what the government is considering.
“This is changing rapidly,” he said.
Ontario asks for bars, restaurants to close
Though the province said Monday morning that it wasn't yet prepared to take more drastic measures to enforce "social distancing," it reversed course in the afternoon. In another press conference, Dr. Williams asked bars and restaurants to close except for takeout, and for gatherings of over 50 people to be cancelled.
The recommendation isn't as strong as what's been done in neighbouring Quebec, which forced the closure of bars and theatres and restricted the capacity of restaurants in an effort to slow the spread of the disease.
Dr. Williams said he doesn't have the authority to force businesses to close. But earlier in the day, Ford and his ministers had said they were prepared to take further steps.
“We will take decisive action once the chief medical officer tells us to shut it down — we’ll shut it down,” Ford said. The premier's office didn't immediately respond to questions Monday evening about whether Dr. Williams' later announcement would prompt him to take further action.
Dr. Williams said the province can test more than 2,000 people per day for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, up from around 1,200 a week ago. He said they are hoping to bring that up to 5,000 as soon as possible.
Ford said he would support a federal decision to close the country’s borders to visitors, but that the trade of goods must not be disrupted. (Soon afterwards, the federal government announced it would shut the border to most non-citizens but allow trade to continue.)
“We have to keep the supply chain going,” he told the news conference at Queen’s Park,
Finance Minister Rod Phillips, meanwhile, downgraded next week’s provincial budget to a fiscal and economic update given the uncertainty about the long-term impact the pandemic will have on the province’s economy.
“As Ontario’s finance minister, it’s important that I introduce a financial plan for the province that is as current as possible given the dynamic situation,” he said. “So instead of a full budget, I will release an economic and fiscal update on March 25 based on our best understanding of the current situation.
He said it would provide a one-year outlook based on current, lowered economic projections, and that he would provide regular fiscal updates as the situation evolves.
“Our approach will include increased resources for the healthcare system, direct support for people, and action to protect jobs and our economy.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 5:20 p.m. to include new information from the Ontario government.