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Ontario plans for portable benefits, talks next steps on sick days: labour minister

Proposed benefits package for uninsured workers would include health and dental coverage

By Holly McKenzie-Sutter in Toronto

Ontario is committing to offering “portable benefits” for workers, the returning labour minister says, and is mulling next steps for a soon-to-expire sick leave program.

In an interview with The Canadian Press on Thursday, Monte McNaughton discussed labour plans for the recently re-elected Progressive Conservative government, including next steps for the proposed benefits package for uninsured workers – which would include health and dental coverage – that was first publicly announced before the election.

He said the government plans to make the benefits plan a reality, but it’s awaiting interim recommendations expected this month from a panel of experts on how best to implement it. Further consultations and another update on recommendations are expected in the fall. 

“We need to take our time to get it right, but we will be moving forward on this,” McNaughton said, calling the implementation planning a “monumental task” for the government-appointed panel, with few global precedents to draw from. “In the weeks and months ahead, we’re going to have that blueprint for the province.”

It’s one of several pending policies on the labour file, which McNaughton has been reappointed to since the Progressive Conservatives were re-elected last month. Workers’ groups and critics have raised concerns about the lack of specificity in the plan and some have called for more basic employment rights for gig workers instead.

Cabinet is also currently discussing next steps for its temporary program that offers three days of paid sick leave, which is set to expire at the end of this month, McNaughton said, promising that more information would come “very, very soon.”

“I made it clear that I’m going to continue working for workers and having their backs every day,” he said. “Now that cabinet is formed, this is something that I can tell you we’re looking at.”

Premier Doug Ford’s government announced the paid sick-leave plan in the spring of 2021, more than a year into the pandemic amid growing calls for such a policy to minimize workplace spread of COVID-19. The program has since been extended until July 31, with the Opposition NDP and others calling for the government to expand the program and offer more days. 

Movement on paid sick leave was one of several labour-related policy shifts for the Tory government that picked up speed in the lead-up to the June election.

Another was the decision to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour in January, after the Ford government had cut a planned increase earlier in its term. 

A further minimum wage increase to $15.50 is due in October. McNaughton said that 50 cent raise was determined by looking at inflation from the previous two years, in an approach the government intends to take every year going forward.

McNaughton said Thursday that the government is sticking with the 50 cent increase and won’t adjust it to a higher amount based on changes to inflation since then. 

In December, Statistics Canada reported that the consumer price index rose 4.8 per cent compared with a year earlier. By April, the annual pace of inflation had increased 6.8 per cent year over year. The most recent update in May saw the annual inflation rate soar to 7.7 per cent, its highest level in nearly 40 years.

McNaughton said the government recognizes that Ontario families are struggling with the rising cost of living but said it would continue to announce each year’s planned October wage increase every April. He said that approach gives employers and workers more time to prepare.

“It gives, in particular, the small businesses that predictability, and workers as well, to know what that minimum wage increase is going to be,” he said. 

McNaughton is returning to the labour file after an election win that Ford partly credited to his party’s ability to win support for labour unions. Some critics have been skeptical of the government’s labour-friendly rebrand at the end of its first term, calling it a targeted strategy to win over voters.

McNaughton, however, said his efforts to support working Ontarians are genuine and will continue now that he’s back on the file.

“Just watch what we’re about to do,” he said in response to that criticism. “Since the election, I’ve been out visiting workers and labour leaders and employers across the province, getting ideas and listening for what further action needs to be taken to make Ontario really the best place to start a family to raise a family and to work.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2022.

Banner image:  Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton (right) takes to the podium as Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy looks on, during a news conference in Toronto, on Wednesday April 28, 2021. Ontario is awaiting the details it needs to move ahead with offering “portable benefits” for workers without coverage, the returning labour minister says, and mulling next steps for a soon-to-expire sick leave program. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young