Pandemic paid sick leave is working.

That is the message of the Minister of Labor, Monte McNaughton, who extended until the end of the year a temporary provincial program that was supposed to end on September 25.

“It is one of the resources we have to fight COVID-19,” McNaughton said in an interview Thursday.

More than 121,000 workers have taken advantage of the “worker’s income protection benefit” since it was launched in April, after an outcry from critics who deemed the federal paid sick leave plan insufficient.

While Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy had set aside up to $ 2 billion for the provincial plan, so far it has only cost the treasury $ 37.2 million.

“We’re averaging $ 2.3 million a week,” McNaughton said, emphasizing that he “never bought into” the idea that paid leave would be misused.

“I trust the workers and this speaks to that. We are defeating these myths that people would abuse this. That is not happening, ”he said.

Under Ontario’s plan, workers without benefits can receive up to three days of paid leave, up to a maximum of $ 200 per day, and Queen’s Park reimburses companies for that wage cost within two weeks.

The typical value of a claim is $ 154 per day and applicants take an average of two days off.

Most work in retail, administrative, or support and manufacturing positions. The top three claim areas are Mississauga, Downtown Toronto, and North York.

Employees can use the benefit when they are sick or if they need time to get vaccinated.

“We are promoting this online (in ads) every day: get vaccinated and stay home when you are sick,” the minister said.

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But McNaughton, who touted his work with public and private sector union leaders, said employees need a stronger safety net.

“I believe in pensions and benefits for workers. We want to distribute opportunities more broadly and fairly, ”he said, insisting that Prime Minister Doug Ford’s progressive conservatives are more pro-unions than some previous conservative governments.

“I have been a member (of the labor movement). I was the Prime Minister of Labor (PC) to march in the Labor Day parade for many years. Jerry Dias, Smokey Thomas and others; I talk to them all the time. “

Dias is the president of Unifor, which also represents Toronto Star workers, and Thomas is the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

“If I have to break some stigmas (on unions) within the conservative movement, so be it,” McNaughton said.

In fact, the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 9,579 Ontarians since March 2020, appears to have prompted conservatives to reconsider previously held views on worker benefits.

Upon gaining power in 2018, the Conservatives canceled the two days of mandatory paid sick leave introduced by former Prime Minister Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, even though that benefit was covered by companies, not the provincial treasury.

Earlier this year, Ford resisted calls from doctors, epidemiologists, union leaders, opposition parties, mayors and experts to implement an Ontario-specific paid sick leave program to supplement the awkward federal benefit.

The prime minister warned that it could lead to a “double dip” and a futile duplication.

When Ford finally relented during the third wave of the pandemic in April, NDP leader Andrea Horwath wryly noted the cost of the delay.

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“In the year it took the government to capitulate on paid sick days, 455,000 people became infected and nearly 8,000 died from COVID-19,” Horwath said at the time.

“This action comes too late. Too late to prevent COVID-19 from spiraling out of control. too late for workers who have already gotten sick ”.

Liberal leader Steven Del Duca noted in April that “hesitation and delay will be seen as an unforgivable failure of Doug Ford’s leadership.”

Robert Benzie is the bureau chief for Star’s Queen’s Park and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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