Feds pledge to push provinces for paid sick leave following NDP prompt

The federal government committed Monday to advancing talks with the provinces and territories on ensuring that every worker in Canada who needs it can access 10 days of paid sick leave a year, a measure viewed as important to the “recovery phase” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used his daily address to make the commitment, after NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh hitched his caucus’ support for the Liberal’s proposal for how the rest of the spring session will be structured to Ottawa vowing to pursue a more robust sick leave policy.

Trudeau’s pledge to pursue more sick leave protections for workers is likely to see the government garner the NDP’s backing when it comes time to vote on the new agreement that will see regular sittings continue to be suspended until September. In their place the Liberals are proposing four special all-party committee meetings a week until mid-June and then four times over the summer.

In an interview on CTV’s Power Play, Singh indicated that when the vote comes—expected by end-of-day Tuesday—his caucus will likely support it, noting that the proposal as it stands was also the result of NDP negotiation efforts.

“It was our proposal to have days over the summer with the hybrid in-person and virtual sitting,” Singh said. “These were absent in the Conservative party’s proposal.”

In order to see the motion pass, the government needs the backing of at least one other recognized party. If the motion secures enough votes, it’s possible the new model of meeting—which includes MPs joining in virtually via two large video screens inside the Chamber—could be up and running by Wednesday at the earliest.

SICK LEAVE KEY TO 'RECOVERY PHASE' 

In making the sick leave commitment on Monday, Trudeau said that with more people returning to work over the coming weeks and months it will become even more important that employees feel they have the ability to stay home if they are sick or displaying symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

“To come out of this crisis, our country needs workers… more than ever,” Trudeau said, citing a Sunday call with Singh about the issue. “Nobody should have to choose between taking a day off work due to illness, or being able to pay their bills.”

Singh was quick to celebrate the win, but said caucus 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.”

Trudeau said that “without delay” he will be discussing with premiers a way to ensure that those who need to stay home can without penalty. The prime minister also said the federal government will consider other long-term sick leave support.

He said that British Columbia Premier John Horgan first brought up the issue on a call with all premiers a few weeks ago.

Trudeau said the concern raised “quite rightly” by Horgan was whether come fall flu season, people would be able to stay home without economic impact should they develop COVID-19-like symptoms. The prime minister said he agreed it will be important that anyone who feels ill have the ability to not go into work and rather go get a test to limit the risk of a second wave.

Even though the mechanisms to implement a sick leave program rest with the provinces, Trudeau pointed to other joint federal-provincial COVID-19 relief measures that have been agreed to as examples of how it can be done, such as the commercial rent relief program which launched Monday morning. 

“Today’s announcement means that frontline workers will no longer be forced to choose between their job and their health,” said Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff in a statement, noting the cross-party co-operation that made this commitment a reality. “Right now, it is incredibly important that any worker who has been exposed to COVID-19 can self-quarantine without anxiety of lost wages.”

“It is good to see Parliament focus on working Canadians during this crisis,” said Yussuff.

PROPOSING 4-DAY HYBRID SITTINGS

MPs spent the majority of their day Monday debating the pros and cons of the Liberal proposal, and that’s set to continue on Tuesday.

Should the government’s motion on the future House meetings pass as proposed, MPs will continue to convene amid the ongoing pandemic—while keeping in mind public health precautions— under a slightly reworked model. It includes having the current special all-party committee focused on the government’s COVID-19 response meet Monday through Thursday, until June 17.

Rather than an actual resumption of the full House of Commons, the committee would hold its meetings under a new hybrid model that will allow some MPs to participate in-person, while others can take part from their homes, via screens set up inside the Chamber.

The future special committee meetings would allow MPs to question the government on non-COVID-19 matters, though concerns remain about representation inside the House from MPs from across the country given the propensity of technical and connectivity issues experienced to date.

The plan would also see MPs attend four additional sittings over the summer— on July 8, July 22, Aug. 12, and Aug. 26— before remaining adjourned until Sept. 21.

As part of the motion committee work could continue virtually, taking on new studies such as the House affairs is being asked to do. There, the focus would be on diving deeper into an evaluation of how a formal hybrid House of Commons session could occur, with the implementation of new tools like remote voting.

FOCUS STILL NEEDS TO BE ON CRISIS: PM

Defending the government’s approach to parliament amid the nationwide COVID-19 outbreak, Trudeau said that the focus still “needs to be on this crisis that has taken over almost every aspect of Canadians’ lives and of our economy.”

Speaking to the motion on Monday, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez made the case that the work of Parliament has continued through the pandemic, pointing to the hundreds of witnesses heard from, the dozens of committee meetings held, as well as the handful of emergency bills that have passed.

He also noted that under the current special committee meeting structure, the government has faced more questions from the opposition than it would have under normal House sitting parameters.

In an interview on CTV’s Power Play, Rodriguez said the inability for MPs to vote remotely is a key sticking point in not opting to have actual House sittings.

While the Bloc Quebecois have indicated they are less concerned about the fine print of the motion and more about the real impacts COVID-19 are having on Canadians, the government’s arguments haven’t appeared to satisfy the Official Opposition Conservatives.

Opposed to the current meeting structure, the Conservatives have been calling for a more robust resumption of sittings that would allow for more accountability on the massive government policies being rolled out over the last two months while respecting the health and safety of all on Parliament Hill.

During Monday’s debate, Conservative MPs accused the Liberals of using the COVID-19 crisis to “shut down” parliamentary accountability, and the point was made that many of the usual functions of the House—including advancing private members’ bills and filing order paper questions—have been on pause for more than two months now with no plan in sight to resume those aspects of House business.

“The House of Commons needs to be functioning and needs to be seen to be functioning during this crisis. Contrary to what the Liberals, NDP, and the Bloc may think, this house is an essential service to the country, and we its members are essential workers,” outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said on Monday, in what may have been one of his final speeches in the House of Commons as party leader pending future emergency recalls, as his party is set to name his replacement this summer.