Premier Doug Ford's government is extending its COVID-19 sick pay program beyond its scheduled expiry at the end of December.
Ontario's COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Benefit will continue until July 31, 2022, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton told CBC News in an interview Tuesday.
"I've been clear with workers throughout this pandemic that paid sick days will be in place for them until we defeat COVID-19," said McNaughton.
The extension comes with Ontario averaging more new daily cases of COVID-19 than at any point in the past six months and the the province's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table projecting that the infection numbers will continue to rise into January.
Ontario's COVID-19 sick pay program requires employers to provide all their employees with up to three paid days off for a range of reasons related to the pandemic, including getting vaccinated against the virus, showing symptoms, or caring for a sick family member.
The government reimburses employers who do not normally give their workers sick pay with up to $200 per employee per day.
Despite the extension, McNaughton said the maximum number of paid sick days that each employee can take over the course of the program will remain capped at three.
"They're being used for what they were intended for, to get their kids vaccinated. If a son or a daughter needs to stay home from school, they can use a paid sick day, if they need a mental health day, they can use the paid sick day," he said.
The Ford government launched the program in April, following months of pressure from public health experts and workers' rights advocates, as Ontario struggled through the third wave of the pandemic.
Since then, employers have submitted sick pay claims for more than 235,000 employees and have been reimbursed more than $80 million in wages, according to statistics published by the Ministry of Labour.
The government budgeted $1 billion for the program, so it hasn't used even one-tenth of its allocation. The extension to July 2022 is the second time the government has lengthened the temporary program.
Earlier on Tuesday, the opposition New Democrats pressed the government in the Legislature on paid sick days.
"Three weeks from now, workers across Ontario will be left without any paid sick days," said Doly Begum, the New Democrat MPP for Scarborough-Southwest, referring to the expected Dec. 31 expiry of the program.
"Taking away paid sick days as we are on the brink of another wave right before this hectic holiday season is beyond cruel," said Begum.
The government's House Leader, Paul Calandra, hinted the sick pay program would be extended but stopped short of committing to it.
"It's the right program and it has made a big difference in the lives of our essential workers across this province," said Calandra. "We will, of course, continue to be there for the workers of the province of Ontario, not only during COVID, but as we have always been."