Omnibus bill would bring pandemic daycare rules, keep continuing care workers at one site

Eased restrictions on daycares, longer-term precautions in seniors care homes and the ability to sign legal documents remotely are all part of a suite of new measures the Alberta government wants to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health minister introduces COVID-19 Pandemic Response Statutes Amendment Act

Health Minister Tyler Shandro has introduced legislation that includes a host of longer-term changes that would allow the government to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic without staying in a state of public health emergency. (CBC)

Eased restrictions on daycares, longer-term precautions in seniors care homes and the ability to sign legal documents remotely are all part of a suite of new measures the Alberta government wants to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a provincial state of public health emergency expiring earlier this week, temporary steps the government took to prevent spread of the virus will all expire by mid-August, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Thursday.

A new bill would extend some of those temporary responses until as long as Dec. 31, 2021, he said.

"The pandemic has been a test for all of us and for the health system, and we've not only passed it, we've been a success story that many other places can learn from," Shandro told a news conference in Edmonton.

He introduced Bill 24, the COVID-19 Pandemic Response Statutes Amendment Act, in the legislature Thursday.

If passed, the omnibus bill would temporarily amend 15 pieces of legislation governing public health, labour, children's services and more.

For at least another year, workers who take unpaid leave to care for children or family members during the pandemic will continue to have their jobs protected, should the bill pass. What was previously a five-day job-protected family leave was extended during the public health emergency.

Temporary layoffs would be able to last as long as 180 days, up from the current 120 days.

The bill would allow child-care centres to group kids and caregivers into groups of up to 30 — extending a temporary rule that took effect last week. This would allow more daycares to open and accommodate more children as more parents return to work.

What are now recommended guidelines for child-care centres to follow would become mandatory and enforceable rules should the bill pass.

"Many of us in cabinet are parents ourselves," Shandro said. "I think we knew the difficulties that parents of the province are going to have to be able to comply with the physical distancing that we as Albertans are going to have to apply in our daily lives to be able to slow the spread of the virus."

NDP children's services critic Rakhi Pancholi said Thursday about a third of child-care centres in the province have re-opened, and those numbers will have to rise for women and caregivers to return to work. She was pleased to see job-protected leave for family care extended.

"This is important because I think we're going to need it," Pancholi said. "Many Albertans, especially women, have jobs to go to back to, but are not able to go because government has ignored child care as a key component of economic recovery."

The Opposition also wants to see the provincial government grant paid job-protected leave for workers, possibly in partnership with a federal Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program.

One worker, one site rule to remain 

Further, the bill would keep long-term care and seniors' home workers reporting to only one work site for 18 more months.

The rule was designed to prevent transmission of the virus by employees and contractors who work in more than one continuing care home. Seniors are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. So far, 116 of the 151 Albertans who have died of the disease were residents of long-term or supportive living facilities.

A $2-an-hour wage top up for health-care aides working in private care homes will continue until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, Shandro said.

The wage boost was introduced to combat staff shortages earlier in the pandemic when outbreaks caused absenteeism of up to 20 per cent in some care homes, Shandro said.

A dispute between the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and private care home operators has delayed some of those workers receiving the extra wages.

"These workers deserve that money," Shandro said. "This needs to be dealt with quickly by these folks. I expect AUPE to want to work with the employers to resolve this issue and allow these workers to get what's owed to them."

AUPE central vice-president Bonnie Gostola said Thursday the union has received pushback from some employers who say the wage top ups aren't part of their collective agreements.

Shandro said Thursday the issue remains unresolved at 94 care homes.

Gostola was happy to hear Bill 24 includes job-protected leave and a proposed extension of the one-site rule for workers. Although she was also pleased to hear the wage top-ups will stick around, she said the execution of that bonus pay has not been smooth.

Despite a federal government announcement more than a month ago, the Alberta government has yet to say which front-line workers will qualify for additional wage top-ups cost-shared by both levels of government.

Mandatory airport screening to stay

Bill 24 would grant provincial officials access and space in airports to monitor incoming travellers for COVID-19. Travellers would be required to have their temperature checked and complete a self-isolation questionnaire. Travellers who refuse to participate would face penalties.

The legislation would allow officials to screen travellers at the Coutts provincial checkpoint at the U.S. border.

It would enable health information sharing with police potentially exposed to COVID-19 and the medical examiner to study COVID-related deaths.

The bill would also amend a series of acts to allow remote signing and witnessing of documents for guarantors, personal directives, powers of attorney and wills. The government is considering making those changes permanent to accommodate people who live in remote areas or with mobility challenges.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.