Ontario's remaining COVID-19 relief money should go to sick days and home care, experts say

After critics called the Ford government out for not spending all of its COVID-19 contingency money, Ontario says it plans to spend what's left in its pot by the end of the fiscal year. 

Province is 'sitting on' billions of unspent pandemic funding, report claims

A man advocating for provincially mandated paid sick days for workers participates in a 'die-in' rally outside Queens Park in Toronto in mid-January. Calls for sick pay have been growing louder in 2021. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

After critics called the Ford government out for not spending all of its COVID-19 contingency money, Ontario says it plans to spend what's left in its pot by the end of the fiscal year.

That assurance is coming days after a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) said Ontario is "sitting on" $6.4 billion worth "of unallocated contingency funds" — more than any other province in Canada. 

"There's no point to having a rainy day fund when there's a hurricane outside. Now is the time to allocate these funds to places that need them," said David Macdonald, a senior economist with the CPCA, in an interview with CBC Toronto. 

Macdonald acknowledges that most of that money will come to the province only after April 1, and agrees with the government's own assessment that, as of November, just $2.6 billion dollars remained in the fund.

The provincial Ministry of Finance rejects the idea that the province is sitting on money, writing in a statement that "any suggestion that the government is not spending funds to keep Ontarians healthy and safe is categorically false."

According to that same statement, some of that $2.6 billion has already been committed, giving the recently announced Small Business Support Grant as an example. 

Calls for sick pay grow louder

The remainder of the money, the statement from the province says, is to be spent by the end of the fiscal year, "flowing to priority areas and ... [addressing] emerging needs to support our fight with the COVID-19 pandemic." 

The province has given few hints as to where what's left of the contingency fund will go, but is promising more details on Feb. 15, when it's set to give a fiscal update.

The question, then, is which priority areas should receive that money over the next two months. 

Several public health experts spoke in favour of the province earmarking money for a sick pay program — a call recently repeated by the mayors of several COVID-19 hot spots in the province, who argued an easy-to-access benefit "will save lives" by encouraging workers to stay home or get tested.

Labour Minister Monte McNaughton says the federal paid sick leave program will suffice for Ontarians, but also says it should be easier to access. (Richard Lautens/The Canadian Press)

Labour Minister Monte McNaughton has maintained that the federal program, called the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, is sufficient.

McNaughton has said that he doesn't want to duplicate it with an Ontario version, though he has said the Liberal government's program should be easier to access. 

But Kate Mulligan, an assistant professor in the Dalla Lana School of Health School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, says there is room for the province to provide its own offering. 

Mulligan says there are issues with the federal benefit. One of the drawbacks, she says, is that you have to apply after your period away from work. She also says it's simply not enough money (the benefit pays out $500 a week for up to two weeks). 

"We need employer paid sick days, and we need provincially-paid sick days in the case of an emergency, like we're in now," she told CBC Toronto. 

The sick days issue isn't as clear cut for Dr. Jim Tiessen, director of the Master of Health Administration Program and Community Care at Ryerson University, who points out the federal government may be a better choice to administer a sick pay program

"[The province doesn't] have the fiscal capacity that the federal government does to generate revenue," he said. 

"I'm not giving the provincial government a pass, but we're in this realm of federal-provincial jurisdiction around these types of things. It gets complicated," he continued. 

'Proper home care' is needed

There are other spending priorities at the top of Tiessen's list, including shoring up home care — something Quebec has already moved to do.

"The main strategy of fighting this pandemic has been to stay home. So how do you help people stay home? It's through proper home care for those who need it," he told CBC Toronto. 

Also important to Tiessen: hiring more long-term care staff and paying them more generously, as well as more work on infection prevention and control to keep new COVID-19 variants in check. 

Home care and long-term care staffing are worth spending on, agrees Laura Rosella, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. 

Laura Rosella, an associate professor of epidemiology at U of T, says an investment in home care is warranted. (CBC)

But Rosella is also looking ahead, calling for an investment in the long-term health outcomes of people thrown out of work by the pandemic. 

"There are many individuals that have lost their job," she said. "In the long term, these individuals will be at increased risk for [bad] health outcomes." 

With files from Farrah Merali


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