Ontario announces $4 an hour pandemic pay increase for front-line workers

Ontario will provide a $4 per hour salary increase for front-line workers as part of temporary pandemic payment to recognize their efforts in the fight against COVID-19, Premier Doug Ford said on Saturday.

Those working over 100 hours a month will be eligible for $250 bonus per month

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said of front-line workers on Saturday: 'Today, we're recognizing their incredible effort. We're recognizing their sacrifice.' (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario will provide a $4 per hour salary increase for front-line workers as part of a temporary pandemic payment to recognize their efforts in the fight against COVID-19, Premier Doug Ford said on Saturday.

Ford said the $4 per hour increase, "pandemic pay premium," will be paid on top of existing hourly wages and it is a financial acknowledgement of their dedication, long hours and the health risks they face. The top-up, in place as of Friday, will continue for 16 weeks.

"Today, we're recognizing their incredible effort. We're recognizing their sacrifice," Ford told reporters at a news briefing at Queen's Park.

As well, Ford said employees working more than 100 hours a month would receive lump sum payments of $250 per month for each of the next four months. This bonus means eligible employees working an average of 40 hours per week would receive $3,560 in additional compensation, Ford said. 

"It's our way of saying thank you," he added.

Those eligible for pandemic pay are staff at long-term care homes, retirement homes, emergency shelters, supportive housing, what the province calls social services congregate care settings, as well as workers at correctional institutions and youth justice facilities, and those providing home and community care.

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says she's 'asking Doug Ford to make this additional pay retroactive to the day the state of emergency was declared.' (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

It also includes some staff in hospitals, those caring for adults with development disabilities and those who provide support services, such as cooks and cleaners. 

Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy said more than 350,000 employees across Ontario will qualify for the pandemic pay.

Asked why it took until now to increase pay, Ford said he wished he could have increased salaries from the start, but the province did not have the capacity.

Ford said the federal government played a "massive role" in making a salary increase possible. He thanked the government for its help, but said the province needs a sustained commitment.

"We need them to do their part when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable in long-term care homes," Ford said.

"The situation we're all facing is unprecedented and it's extremely serious.This crisis has clearly shown the deeply-rooted, longstanding cracks in our long-term care system. We need to do better. And we will do better."

Ford said the pandemic pay increase will enable facilities to attract more staff.

He added that he and his wife were going to visit his mother-in-law through the window at her long-term care home and will personally thank the workers.

"They deserve every single penny, 10 times, if we had the capacity."

Raise for front-line workers long overdue, NDP says

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, for her part, said the raise for front-line workers is long overdue.

"I'm asking Doug Ford to make this additional pay retroactive to the day the state of emergency was declared, so that people's sacrifice and hard work to keep us all safe is recognized," she said in a statement on Saturday.

Premier Doug Ford said on Saturday that the $4 per hour increase, 'pandemic pay premium,' will be paid on top of existing hourly wages. (CBC)

Service Employees International Union, which represents 60,000 health-care workers in Ontario, echoed the call, saying it advocated for a pay increase at the start of the pandemic.

"While the news of this increase will be welcomed by health-care workers who are struggling financially, it should be made retroactive to include those who are on unpaid leave as a result of quarantine or contracting COVID-19 themselves," SEIU Healthcare President Sharleen Stewart said.

"Our government can demonstrate if they truly believe these workers are heroes by making this temporary increase permanent."

Ford said his government wasn't able to give workers a raise until the federal government decided to help fund the initiative.

"The federal government played a massive role in stepping up and helping us," Ford said. "I wish I could have increased the pay from day one, the government didn't have the capacity at the time."

Ford calls anti-lockdown protesters 'yahoos'

About 200 people gathered on the grounds of the Ontario Legislature on Saturday afternoon, in defiance of emergency orders, to protest the shutdown of much of the province. Ford called them "yahoos" and said they were "irresponsible, reckless and selfish."

Emergency orders are in place to slow community spread of COVID-19.

In response to a question, the premier said: "We have a bunch of yahoos out in the front of Queen's Park sitting there protesting. They're breaking the law, putting everyone in jeopardy, putting themselves in jeopardy, putting the workers in jeopardy, and God forbid, one of them ends up in the hospital."

Ford said the protesters could set health-care workers back by months and added that many of those workers are at multiple hospitals just down the street from the protest site.

He apologized for getting upset during his answer to the question. "Obviously they don't care about anyone else in Ontario," he said

The premier added he would like the economy to restart more than anyone else, but he will not put people at risk for the sake of the economy and he pleaded for people to be patient. "We'll get there."

New orders issued for care home staff redeployment

The Ontario government also announced on Saturday that it has issued new emergency orders to allow staff to be redeployed to long-term care homes to "ensure they can work where they are needed most during the COVID-19 outbreak."

As of Saturday, there have been 145 outbreaks in retirement homes across the province. The number represents an increase of 14 homes since the last provincial update on Friday.

Overall, a total of 625 people in long-term care homes have died of COVID-19 in Ontario, an increase from 573 on Friday, according to the provincial health ministry. Some 2,455 residents and 1,120 staff members have tested positive.

Under one new emergency order, health-service providers, including hospitals, will be allowed to temporarily reassign front-line staff to homes in need, according to a news release issued on Saturday. 

"Our long-term care homes are under attack or at high risk of an attack from this deadly virus," Premier Doug Ford said in a statement. 

"That's why we are continually shoring up our defences and fortifying the iron ring of protection around these vulnerable seniors and staff." 

The emergency order will also provide staffing flexibility to employers in the intervenor sector, which helps people who have a combined loss of hearing an vision, the release said.

The province says employers in that sector will now have temporary authority to carry out tasks needed to support people who are deafblind, while ensuring there are measures in place to allow for physical distancing. 

"These new emergency orders will allow us to get even more boots on the ground in our long-term care homes, and ensure those with visual or hearing disabilities continue receiving the support they deserve," Ford said. 

Military sent to long-term care homes

Meanwhile, the first Canadian military members are also being sent to long-term care homes to help combat the outbreaks. 

A convoy of vehicles arrived at Orchard Villa in Pickering, Ont. on Friday afternoon. 

Orchard Villa is one of five of the hardest-hit long-term care homes where Premier Doug Ford asked the federal government for military backup earlier this week.

Here's the full list of homes receiving help: 

  • Orchard Villa, 40 deaths, 104 resident cases, 59 staff cases. 
  • Eatonville Care Centre, 37 deaths, 145 cases.
  • Altamont Community Care Centre, 31 resident deaths and one staff member, 96 resident cases, five staff cases. 
  • Hawthorne Place, 10 deaths, 51 cases. 
  • Holland Christian Homes' Grace Manor, two deaths, 49 resident cases, 21 staff cases. 

"Eatonville Care Centre was pleased to learn this afternoon that the province is providing military support to our home as we work to manage the COVID-19 outbreak," Evelyn MacDonald, the facility's executive director, said in a statement on Friday.

"These resources will assist our hard-working staff as they continue to prioritize the health and safety of our residents."

Car rallies are expected to take place Saturday afternoon in front of three long-term care homes in Toronto, Ont. Workers say they want to bring attention to a lack of personal protective equipment. 

The rallies are expected to be held at Orchard Villa Retirement Residence, Chartwell Ballycliffe Long Term Care and Retirement Residence, and Altamont Care Community. 

Provincial death toll tops 860 

The province reported 811 deaths from COVID-19 on Saturday, though CBC News has counted 901 deaths using data from local health units. Some 7,509 people have recovered. 

Ontario also reported 476 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases in the province since the outbreak began to 13,995. 

Meanwhile, hospitalizations from the virus rose to 925 from 910 on Friday.

The number of patients in intensive care and on ventilators increased slightly, bringing the totals to 245 and 195, respectively. 

Growth rate of cases reducing in Ontario

At a news conference Saturday afternoon, Ontario's chief medical officer Dr. David Williams said 10,575 tests were completed throughout the province yesterday, bringing the total number of tests done since the outbreak to well over 217,000.

He said the growth of cases in the province has been reducing.

"At the beginning of April we peaked at about 12.5 to 13 per cent positivity," Williams said.

"It has been dropping steadily … and today it's down to 5 per cent. That's a significant drop and that's very encouraging."

Ontario's chief medical officer Dr. David Williams provided an update on COVID-19 in the province on Saturday. (CBC)

Provincial parks to stay closed, community gardens to reopen

The Ontario government has announced it is extending the closure of Ontario's provincial parks and conservation reserves until May 31. 

According to a statement issued on Saturday, the closure means there is no car camping and back country camping, roofed accommodations, day use opportunities and access points are not available and public buildings are closed 

Provincial parks and conservation reserves will remain fully closed to all recreational activities.

Meanwhile, the province announced an amendment to its emergency order this morning that allows community gardens to reopen.

The Ontario government declared them an "essential source of fresh food" for people, including those who are facing food insecurity, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A media release issued Saturday morning said gardens will have to follow recommendations and instructions laid out by local medical officers of health, which includes physical distancing and regular disinfecting of commonly used equipment and surfaces.

Framework to reopen economy expected next week 

The provincial government also said it will release a framework early next week for how it plans to reopen Ontario's economy.

During his daily news briefing on the COVID-19 crisis on Friday, Ford said community spread of the virus is moving in the right direction. But he also cautioned that any plans to reopen would come with the caveat of putting the health and safety of Ontario residents first.

"[The plan] will provide a gradual and measured approach for opening up," Ford said.

With files from The Canadian Press