A pandemic and some political football

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We have an opportunity before us to “build back better.” We can do it now, while we are in the midst of it, or go through the same types of machinations again at some point later down the road.

Last week, Premier Ford announced we would be getting “one of the best” paid sick day programs in North America. Then he announced the temporary COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Program, which would reimburse workers for up to $200 a day for three days.

I heard someone recently who said, “this is a medical crisis that has been politicized.” I couldn’t agree more, that politics is a major barrier to us navigating our way out of this crisis. It’s not time to lay blame or poke fingers at what is wrong. It is time for ideas. This virus is mutating rapidly, and we are speeding along through so many changes. There is no time to stop and look in the rear-view mirror. We should be looking out the windshield, and getting ready to swerve, or apply the brakes, depending on where we are headed.

At this point in time, there is a projected $35.8 billion cumulative deficit in the Employment Insurance Operating Account as of December 2020. Generally, employees pay 1.58% on every $100 earned. Employers match that contribution at a rate of 1.4 times what the employee pays. This is what we mean when we say the EI fund shouldn’t be part of the federal government’s revenue pot and shouldn’t be treated like the consolidated revenue fund.

In 2004, the Auditor General criticized the government for collecting far more in employment insurance premiums than it needed to pay out in benefits. Sheila Fraser, Auditor General at the time, estimated that accumulated surpluses amounted to about $46 billion. In 2008, the NDP charged that the federal government was taking money from the country’s employment insurance fund, money that rightfully belonged to Canadian workers. The NDP said that successive Liberal and Conservative governments used $54 billion from the EI fund to help pay down the national debt.

There is a commission that oversees EI and must set premium rates every year, and attempt to reach a 7- year break even rate. So, if there are deficits or surpluses, the trick is to try and balance it all out in a 7-year period. This type of math and forecasting is beyond me, so I will leave it at that. The point is, the program is always forward looking, it’s national, and it is funded by us because it’s part of our social contract to protect people.

The only reason I brought it up was to initiate a discussion on the current federally paid sick days program which offers a taxable $500 per week sick benefit to workers. The machinery of the EI Fund is in place and was a logical choice when looking at how to respond to the needs of sick workers, or people who couldn’t work because of quarantines. It’s not much to live on, but from what I understand, it is delivered quickly. In contrast to the CERB, which came about from specific legislation and offered a $2,000 per month from the federal government, it is the worker’s money which is being paid out in sick benefits. Isn’t it so typical that politicians are fighting about how to spend our money.

At this moment, there is a bit of push and push back going on with the province and the federal government on who will or should pay sick benefits because of the pandemic. The province argued that the federal government should have addressed it in the budget, and the federal government is saying that the province needs to open its own program for paid sick days, because businesses in Ontario are provincially regulated. In the middle of this argument, here we stand, the workers and employers who are bewildered by this political struggle to do what is right, and what is needed, and to do it quickly.

Last week, a bill dealing with paid sick leave was voted down in a vote of 20 to 55. This was one of many previous attempts to address the issue. Premier Ford has been saying that the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit is what is needed to encourage people to stay home if they are exposed to COVID-19, and avoid spreading the virus to others. The CRSB was announced after temporary changes were made to the EI program. These changes are in effect until September. It’s pretty safe to guess where this benefit is coming from and what impact it will have on the $35 billion deficit in the fund, and the projected 7-year forecasts to balance the fund. Like the CERB, the sickness benefit is temporary, while with the pandemic, we can see no end in sight. The federal sick benefit can be claimed for 4 weeks. Premier’s Fords’ proposal is also a temporary fix.

But, it was initially an unprecedented offer. Premier Doug Ford’s government offered to contribute to the federal program so that benefits to workers in Ontario could be doubled, but the federal government rejected the offer, saying its program is intended as a stopgap while provinces move to mandate their own paid sick leave.

Labour leaders are saying that the government needs to change the Employment Standards Act to offer at least three paid sick days a year and accrues more with each pay period, up to a maximum of 10, much the same way vacation pay works.

I say, here we stand, with the Premier willing to whip out his cheque book to fund a federal insurance program. We should grab this chance. The Progressive Conservative government’s ideology has always been to support business, reduce payroll taxes, cut red-tape etc. Their reluctance to burden their political business base in this case is understandable, so it is not surprising they are offering to pay, and not take money out of the pockets of business. The federal Liberals don’t want to deal with it. It’s being kicked back and forth.

What if we all agreed that we together, workers, employers, provinces and the federal government, would cost share sick benefits through increased premiums shared equally all at 25% each. What if we enhanced our national EI program so that it actually met the needs of workers and prepared us for the next economic shock, climate catastrophe, or pandemic heading our way. What if we worked together to finally implement a living wage in this province so that people wouldn’t have to live hand to mouth on poverty wages? We have a chance to build back better, now, and we don’t have to wait until the pandemic is over. We don’t need programs that end in September.

What we need is cooperation. What we need is collaboration. What we need is action, rapid-testing, PPE, vaccines, and ideas. We also need to set our political stripes aside and stop trying to prove who are the best friends to business and the economy. We need to demonstrate our humanity. People need us now.

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