COVID-19 watch: Budget delayed, worker protections on the way, ministers announce

COVID-19 watch: Budget delayed, worker protections on the way, ministers announce

In light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the government's second budget will be delayed indefinitely, with an economic statement to be released next week in its place, Finance Minister Rod Phillips announced.

At the same press conference, held Monday at Queen's Park, Premier Doug Ford confirmed the government is working on legislation that will protect the jobs of employees who can't work due to the pandemic.

Economists have revised the economic outlook used to develop the 2020 Ontario budget, which was scheduled to be released March 25, Phillips said.

So instead, the government will follow the federal government's example and release a one-year economic outlook "based on our best understanding of the current situation," he said.

Phillips promised the statement will include increased resources for health care, "direct support for people" and protections for jobs and the economy.

The PCs are planning to release the full budget in the fall at the latest, he said.

Phillips said he would maintain an "open line of communication" with businesses and unions during the pandemic.

Ford and Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said the Progressive Conservatives will tweak the Employment Standards Act so that employers are not allowed to fire employees who miss time due to the coronavirus, whether they're sick with the disease, under investigation, or need to look after kids who are out of school.

Employers will also no longer be able to require doctors' notes for workers who miss time due to self-isolation — but workers will be required to notify their employer "as soon as possible" if they need to take time off, McNaughton said.

The changes will be retroactive to Jan. 5, and will remain in place "until this disease is defeated," he said.

"The situation is changing rapidly. But I want the people of Ontario to know that your government has your back," Ford said.

The measures essentially temporarily reverse changes made by the Ford government in 2018. Ontario workers previously had 10 sick leave days, two of them paid, and were not required to provide doctors' notes — but the Tories reduced that to three unpaid sick days, and allowed employers to require notes.

Opposition parties and labour advocates have been calling for the government to reverse those changes, at least temporarily, as the pandemic has worsened.

When asked whether the government would consider making the changes permanent, Ford demurred.

"As we move forward, things will change based on the situation, based on the advice that we're given from our health experts," he said.

Though the measures as described constitute a temporary reversal, Health Minister Christine Elliott insisted they did not represent a "change of mind" on behalf of the government.

"This is clarifying what the state of affairs is so that our health professionals can do the work at hand," she said.

Jobs will be protected, but workers will have to rely on existing safety nets for money, like employment insurance, McNaughton said.

Ford says he believes the House will reconvene this week to pass the new legislation, but will work with the opposition to find a good time.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was "happy to see" the changes, but urged the Tories to go further. Protections should be in place for renters and homeowners who miss a monthly payment, and small businesses should get more support, she said.

Horwath pointed out that many gig economy workers will be totally without income should they need to take time off work.

"We want to make sure folks are able to get financial support if they don't qualify for EI," she said.

New Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca praised the new measures, and said he's "hopeful" the government will continue to respond quickly to the fast-evolving situation.

The Tories have taken some heat for not implementing measures as strict as provinces like Quebec, which has asked all non-essential businesses to close.

Ford said the government is taking the advice of Dr. David Williams, the province's chief medical officer of health. Williams did not announce any new measures at the morning press conference, but later in the afternoon recommended that bars and restaurants close, and gatherings be limited to 50 people.

Read more about the government's response to criticism that it's moving too slowly here.

Ford tried to calm the anxiety that has led to some grocery stores being cleaned out of things like toilet paper. He said he's spoken to many major retailers who have assured him that the province's supply chains remain strong.

"I will say this again: there's no need — I emphasize this — there's no need to rush out to stores and to panic-buy and hoard essential items that we will need," Ford said.

The premier also said he has confidence in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his deputy, Chrystia Freeland. He wished Trudeau's wife Sophie, who tested positive for COVID-19, a "speedy recovery."

Jack Hauen


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