Ontario to consider boosting minimum wage to $15, increasing paid sick days

Premier Kathleen Wynne's government will take swift action on a review that urges significant reforms to Ontario's employment laws, CBC News has learned.

Paid sick days for all employees, a boost to minimum paid vacation among the recommendations

CBC News has learned that a sweeping review of Ontario's workplace laws urges the provincial government to enhance protections for workers in the most low-paid and vulnerable jobs, including the right to sick pay and an increase in the minimum annual paid vacation. (The Canadian Press)

Premier Kathleen Wynne's government will take swift action on a review that urges significant reforms to Ontario's employment laws, CBC News has learned.

Government sources say cabinet will soon consider giving all employees in Ontario a minimum number of sick days, increasing annual paid vacation from the two-week minimum, boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and enhancing protections for workers in the most low-paid and vulnerable jobs.

For weeks, the Liberals have been examining the report of the Changing Workplaces Review and will soon decide on putting in place some of its key recommendations, according to senior government officials who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity because the proposals have yet to go before cabinet. 

"Our goal is to try to make the workplace fairer for workers in precarious positions," one senior official said. "We want to respond to the general anxiety out there in the workplace. With the underpinnnings of a good economy, we've got to make sure those benefits are being spread about."   

The report "is going to result in action, it's not an election bauble," said another senior government official. "Now is the time to do it right, as quickly as possible." 

The report of the Changing Workplaces Review urges the Wynne government to make paid sick days a right for all employees, but does not recommend a minimum number, according to senior officials who have seen the report. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

The report, more than two years in the making, is the first full review of the Employment Standards Act and Labour Relations Act since Mike Harris was premier.

The report did not review the minimum wage, currently $11.40 an hour and set to rise by the rate of inflation. But a government source said the Liberals are seriously considering a plan to phase in a more rapid minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, a target set by many labour activists.

The report will be made public after Victoria Day on May 22. Officials said the government will announce the reforms it intends to make soon after the release, but it's not clear whether legislation would be introduced before June 1, when Queen's Park adjourns for the summer, or in September. 

'Scheduling, hours of work will be addressed'

"The work is done, the consultations have taken place," Labour Minister Kevin Flynn told the Legislature last week, when asked by the NDP about the timing for releasing the report. "The results are going to support everybody who works hard in this province.

"Such things as scheduling, hours of work, sick time, emergency leave ... will be clearly addressed by the advisers," Flynn said. "We've taken the right amount of time to make sure that when we bring this package forward, it's going to address the needs of all working Canadians while keeping Ontario's economy competitive." 

Ontario Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn.

The Changing Workplaces Review was conducted by two special advisers appointed by the government in February 2015: Michael Mitchell, a veteran labour and employment lawyer, and John Murray, a former Ontario Superior Court justice. 

Senior government officials who have seen Mitchell's and Murray's report tell CBC News it recommends eliminating some of the exemptions to Ontario's Employment Standards Act, which would give many more workers the right to such things as personal emergency leave and overtime pay.

The advisers recommend all workers get the right to call in sick or miss work for a family emergency. Right now, only companies with 50 or more employees are required to offer staff 10 unpaid personal emergency days per year, leaving some 1.7 million workers without that right. 

The report urges the government to make paid sick days a right for all employees, but does not recommend a minimum number. Currently, there is no mandate for paid sick days under provincial law. Researchers estimate 40 to 50 per cent of Ontario workers don't get paid if they call in sick, at least three million people. 

The Wynne government believes that employers should be required to offer workers some sick pay, but has not decided how many paid sick days should be mandatory, according to top Liberal officials. 

The report does not recommend major changes to the rules on how unions are formed, but does urge removing barriers to union organizing among workers in low-paid sectors.

"People are afraid to take time off because they're sick, they're coming to work sick, they're making other people in the workplace sick," said a senior official. "There's a general agreement that sick days are something that workers should be allowed to take and not be afraid of losing their pay."

Similarly, the report recommends increasing the minimum amount of paid vacation for employees but does not set a specific target.   

Changes urged on unionizing 

The report recommends largely maintaining the status quo for the province's labour relations regime. It says the current system of how unions are formed (mostly through secret ballot voting, with card-based certification in a few industries) works fairly well, according to the officials.

However, it urges removing barriers that people in low-paid, precarious employment face in exercising their constitutional right to form a union. For instance, it recommends that union organizers be given access to computerized lists of employees, said one government official. 

Other Labour Relations Act reforms that are recommended, according to the officials:

  • expanding successor rights (requiring that a union contract remains in place when a company is sold) to unions in all sectors. 
  • stronger rules to push employers toward negotiating a first contract after a union is formed. 
Officials said the Wynne government will announce the employment law reforms it intends to make soon after releasing the review later this month. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Some of the other Employment Standards Act recommendations, according to the officials:

"The idea that part-time workers get paid less than full-time workers doing the exact same job just doesn't make any sense to people," said one of the senior officials. 

'Liberals have had 14 years to act'

"Liberals have had over 14 years to improve working conditions," said NDP labour critic Cindy Forster. "How much longer do workers across the province have to wait?"

Forster took on the government during Question Period last week over a CBC News story highlighting how many Ontarians lack paid sick days

"It's unacceptable that three million workers in Ontario have to worry about losing pay if they need to take a day off because they're sick," Forster said. "As New Democrats, we believe in protecting workers' rights to join a union and get a first contract. We believe in the same pay for the same work, and we believe in access to sick days for workers."


Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.