Politics

Ottawa talking to provinces about bringing in paid sick leave: Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government is talking to the provinces about bringing in 10 days of paid sick leave for workers — something the NDP demanded in exchange for supporting the Liberals' plan to extend the suspension of the House of Commons during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Trudeau says government looking at both short- and long-term sick leave options

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau steps out of Rideau Cottage as he makes his way to a news conference in Ottawa, Friday May 22, 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he'll push the provinces to give workers 10 days of paid sick leave a year as the country deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government is talking to the provinces about bringing in 10 days of paid sick leave for workers — something the NDP demanded in exchange for supporting the Liberals' plan to extend the suspension of the House of Commons during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"Nobody should have to choose between taking a day off work due to illness or being able to pay their bills. Just like nobody should have to choose between staying home with COVID-19 symptoms or being able to afford rent or groceries," Trudeau said during his prepared remarks this morning at his daily press conference. 

"That's why the government will continue discussions with the provinces, without delay, on ensuring that as we enter the recovery phase of the pandemic, every worker in Canada who needs it has access to ten days of paid sick leave a year. And we'll also consider other mechanisms for the longer term to support workers with sick leave."

The federal NDP conditioned its support for suspending the full House of Commons sitting schedule on getting a commitment from the Liberal government to bring in paid sick leave for all Canadians and supports for people with disabilities struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just moments after Trudeau announced the ongoing negotiations with the provinces, NDP Leader Singh sent out a statement claiming victory.

"As more and more businesses are being asked to reopen, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh secured two weeks of paid sick leave for every worker in Canada by pushing the federal government to act," reads the statement.

"We will keep pushing the government to make sure they deliver on this commitment and that they work with provinces to make sick leave for workers permanent going forward."

WATCH | Trudeau questioned about paid sick leave plan:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters on Monday. 2:40

Singh later told CBC News that he had secured commitments from Trudeau for two stages of a national sick leave guarantee. 

The first stage is short term and involves making sure that those who need sick leave get it, so that as the economy reopens they don't feel pressured to go to work and risk spreading the virus to their co-workers or customers. 

The federal government, Singh said, should pick up the cost for this near-term program by modifying an existing program such as the CERB or the federal wage subsidy, because provinces and businesses are not in a position to take on new expenses right now.

"In our conversation, [Trudeau] said 'Yes that is something we can do,'" Singh told CBC News. 

"I'm not worried about the actual mechanism. I want to see a real path for someone who gets sick to not have to make that impossible choice — do they go to work rising exposure to their colleagues … or do they stay home and, without having paid sick leave, not know how they are going to pay their bills? That is a choice that I don't want anyone to have to make."

Singh said Trudeau's second commitment was for the longer term and involves the federal government working with provinces and businesses to share the costs of a sick leave program that would ensure all working Canadians receive paid sick leave.

B.C. Premier John Horgan has been pushing Ottawa for weeks to spearhead a national sick pay program to ensure people don't go to work when they're ill.

Horgan had said B.C. was willing to go it alone, but had insisted publicly and in private calls that the federal government should take the lead.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business has expressed concerns about the financial burden a 10-day mandatory sick leave policy could place on small firms already taking a financial hit from the pandemic. Singh said permanent solutions to the shortage of sick leave may have to be developed on a cost-shared basis.

"For the longevity of this program … it will have to be a combination of federal, provincial and employers that come together to figure out ... a permanent sick leave for all Canadians," he said. "Much like it's become law in Canada to have a certain amount of vacation, this is something that should be a guarantee."

Liberal motion would see expanded sittings

A small number of members of Parliament gathered in Ottawa today to debate the Liberals' proposal to waive normal House of Commons sittings in favour of expanding the special COVID-19 committee that has acted as a sort of replacement for most in-person sessions for the past month.

Their motion proposes adding an additional day to the committee's current schedule of one in-person meeting per week (with fewer than three dozen MPs actually present) and two online meetings per week.

The Liberals are now proposing four meetings a week until June 17, with a hybrid of in-person and virtual attendance that would see a small number of MPs in the Commons chamber and others participating via two large video screens set up on either side of the Speaker's chair.

The motion also proposes four sittings of the House of Commons in July and August, each with a question period that would allow MPs the chance to ask cabinet ministers about issues unrelated to COVID-19 — something the Conservatives have demanded in recent weeks.

The Conservatives have indicated they want to do away with the special COVID-19 committee and bring back House of Commons sittings, including opposition days, private members' business and other activities that cannot occur within the committee format.

Conservatives to debate but not obstruct

Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen said that while the motion unveiled by the Liberals over the weekend was an improvement over the way the special committee has been allowed to operate for the past month, it's still not enough.

"We just still firmly believe that Parliament and the powers of Parliament — opposition days, private members' business, motions around committees and things that we do in Parliament — should be resuming," she told The Canadian Press.

"Although we don't dislike what the government is now proposing and at least it's more than one day in person, we are still very disappointed and still maintain that Parliament should be sitting ... We are going to be there for four days face to face. Why can't we have Parliament?"

What to do going forward remained unresolved Monday evening after the Conservatives ran out the clock.

Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez eventually served notice that the government will move to cut off debate on the motion when the Commons resumes on Tuesday.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Jean-Yves Blanchet said today his party isn't participating in negotiations on the return of Parliament.

Watch: Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's full press conference for May 25:

Andrew Scheer said this week he won't be renouncing his U.S. citizenship now that he no longer has a chance of becoming prime minister. But the Conservative leader continues to call for regular, in-person sittings in Parliament. 15:10

The Bloc previously laid out a set of conditions it wanted met before it would engage in discussions on how Parliament could sit.

Those included more help for businesses to cover their fixed overhead costs and a clear plan to follow through on a Liberal promise of financial support for seniors.

Blanchet said the Liberals haven't met either condition, and ensuring they do is his priority.

Members of Parliament arrive to take part in a special committee on COVID-19 in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill. This week, MPs will debate how the chamber will continue to meet amid the pandemic and through the summer. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"Every time we spend five minutes talking about parliamentary rules, we're spending five minutes less talking about what Quebecers require," he said.

He said his party likely will go along with the Commons consensus on how it will operate for the next while. In French, he said that while the Bloc won't argue about who drives the bus or where it's going, it will probably get on board when it arrives.

Returning to regular sittings ideal — expert

"I think it's natural and normal that the Official Opposition would want all the mechanisms available to it to hold the government to account," said Philippe Lagassé, Barton Chair of International Affairs at Carleton University and an expert on the Westminster parliamentary system.

Lagassé said he hopes the House of Commons is able to ease into regular sittings as soon as possible because in-person meetings of the chamber lead to stronger exchanges between politicians.

"I think it's the scope of the types of questions that you get," Lagassé said. "It's also the theatrics that some people will choose to downplay or believe are unnecessary at this time. They're meant to … allow parties to ask uncomfortable questions."

But Lagasse said the hybrid model could be in place for some time, even as the United Kingdom takes steps to phase out a similar system in its own Parliament.

"We may very well see some of these hybrid aspects becoming part of our regular functioning of Parliament, particularly given the size of our country and given the costs to bring MPs back, given health concerns."

Technical limitations to virtual attendance

The key hangup for both sides of the debate appears to be representation as the House of Commons' administration works through the technical limitations on virtual attendance — limitations that both the Conservatives and NDP have acknowledged.

Those limitations were highlighted in a report by a Commons' committee two weeks ago, which cited concerns about hacking and procedural questions about points of order and privilege.

"Conservatives are supportive of this hybrid committee," Bergen said. "Where we have concerns is a hybrid model of Parliament. There's still far too many questions that have to be answered ... If you see the book that governs us, it is a huge book. There's a lot of rules that govern us."

Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota convenes a virtual session of Parliament, which is how MPs from across the country have been participating in parliamentary proceedings amid the pandemic. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

NDP House Leader Peter Julian agreed that there remain unanswered questions and concerns about virtual sittings of Parliament.

"We want to be immune from hacking," he said. "We want to make sure the vote is clear and public ... We have to make sure that we work this out. It's not a detail. It's actually pretty fundamental to have a hybrid Parliament work."

The Conservatives' proposal to resume House of Commons sittings with no more than 50 MPs in the chamber at any time, he said, would mean many MPs would not be able to bring their constituents concerns to Parliament.

"What we need to do is answer that question about virtual voting so MPs can fully participate. So where we would differ from the Conservatives is the Conservative motion does not allow for that full participation," he said. "It is full participation of a very small percentage of parliamentarians."

With files from The CBCs' Peter Zimonjic and the Canadian Press

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