Free drugs for youth, no more doctor's notes: Here are changes coming to Ontario in 2018

Beyond the controversial $14 minimum wage that will be in place Jan. 1, other sweeping changes are set to revamp the Ontario labour and health landscape starting next week.

A host of new laws set to take effect Jan. 1, and proponents say they'll make us happier and healthier

Proponents have fought for months for a $15 minimum wage, one of the new changes coming to Ontario. The wage is set to rise to $14 on Monday, the first day of the new year. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Beyond the controversial $14 minimum wage that will be in place Jan. 1, other sweeping changes are set to revamp the Ontario labour and health landscape starting next week.

The new laws introduce free prescriptions for people under 25 and offer paid sick days to most workers, while abolishing the right for workplaces to request the much-maligned doctor's note when taking time off for health reasons. 

After a year of bickering and scrutinizing from all points of the political spectrum, Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn said Thursday that the workplace overhaul — which includes an immediate $2.40 increase in the general minimum wage — was months in the making, and involved consultation with experts, workers and business owners alike.

"The last time we looked at the Employment Standards Act or the Labour Relations Act was in the 1990s," said Flynn. "Think about how the world of work has changed for people since then. We knew regulations had to keep up."

Among the new laws are a "personal emergency leave" bank, which people can draw from when they need medical treatment, have a sick child or need to visit a lawyer, Flynn said.

A worker gets 10 of those, with the first two paid, making this January the first time Ontario workers will get paid sick leave across the board. 

"A lot of people said they were coming into work sick because they couldn't afford to take time off," Flynn said, noting the change could help stem the spread of infections.

However, the paid sick leave does not extend to automotive workers, as two people who reached out to CBC News on Friday pointed out. Although the province has touted the new rules as applying to all employees in Ontario, tens of thousands of car manufacturers have been excluded.

"The newly added exemption in regulation 502/06, scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2018, means auto workers would be entitled to only seven days for personal or family illness or emergencies and three days for bereavement, none of them paid," stated a petition on the trade union Unifor's website.

Minister of Labour Kevin Flynn says the changes in labour law are based on months of consultation with various groups around Ontario. (CBC)

Although the minimum wage debate "has taken up a lot of oxygen," Flynn stressed the Liberal government looked at evidence from past wage rises in other jurisdictions.

While dozens of economists approved of the changes, others, like those in a Chamber of Commerce-funded report in September, predicted possible job losses in the tens of thousands.

The report, authored by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis, projected 185,000 Ontario jobs at risk and increased costs for households resulting from the wage increase.

The Ontario PC Party, if they win the 2018 provincial election, plan to allay those fears by bringing in the $15 minimum — currently slated to roll out January 2019 — over a longer stretch of time. 

But Flynn said the province's own research counters those "doom and gloom" predictions, which were "often followed by prosperity and increased employment," he said, stressing the need to bring a full-time worker's wages above the poverty line. 

"I think we used to buy into the myth that the minimum wage was a student's wage, that they were saving up for a new skateboard. Turned out it's anything but that. People are trying to raise families. It's not a living wage, $11.60 an hour. 

"The money runs out long before the month runs out for these folks." 

Wage raise a public health issue, says doctor

Dr. Andrew Pinto, a family doctor and public health worker, has seen that income disparity firsthand. 

"What we've been seeing is an increase in folks who are coming in who are struggling to make ends meet," he said. He said about a third of his patients — a fraction he suspects is swelling — are classified as low income.

Pinto said they tell him they can't afford healthy food, don't have time to exercise, can't take sick days and have difficulty paying the rent. 

Dr. Andrew Pinto, a physician and public health worker, said he has seen poverty-related health issues increase since his med school days. (CBC)

"Living on a low income is associated with a higher rate of anxiety, low mood, stress — all of these things contribute to mental health," said Pinto. "But it's also associated with physical problems, so people have higher rates of chronic diseases," such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

The changes will mean "more money in pockets of low income folks," income that his patients can use for fresh vegetables and medication, he said. "I think this will translate into better health for communities."

But as the new rules take effect, cautioned Pinto, "we need to make sure people know their rights."

"This is going to be a really positive change. For the first time all Ontarians have paid sick days," which Pinto said should lessen the burden on the health-care system. "We won't have people coming in just to get doctor's notes."

Changes set a new standard, proponents say

Deena Ladd, head of the Workers' Action Centre in Toronto, took a hardball stance on the raise, which she says labour activists have been fighting for for years.

"If you're working at minimum wage you should not be living in poverty," she said. "It's going to be a good-news story for all of our communities."

Despite fears the increased wage will slash income for small businesses and result in widespread bankruptcy, Ladd doesn't think businesses will struggle to keep up with the changes. 

"What we're hearing is that many small businesses actually pay more than minimum wage and have been doing so for a long time, partly because they can't afford the high turnover," she said. 

"I think it's mainly the large corporations that have been fighting the minimum wage increases. Which I think is a real shame. Any person running a business should be thinking about their workers." 

Deena Ladd, head of the Workers' Action Centre, thinks the changes will normalize a 'decent standard' of labour rights. (CBC)

Ladd voiced concerns that some employers might use the wage rise as an excuse to raise prices and actually increase profits. 

"We're not talking about gold standard collective agreements here," she said. "We're talking about raising the minimum wage above the poverty line. If businesses use that and take advantage of that, it reflects badly on their business."

With files from Lisa Xing