The Ontario government is proposing an amendment to the province’s Employment Standards Act that would give workers unpaid time off should they need to care for a friend or family member with a serious injury or illness.
Ontario currently offers a family medical leave plan that allows people to take an eight-week unpaid leave of absence to care for a loved one who is terminally ill. The proposed new family caregiver leave would expand on this, offering workers up to eight weeks of unpaid leave and guaranteeing their job will be there when they return.
“There are, from time to time, circumstances that unfold in our own families that absolutely demand that we be there and provide care and support,” Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said. “And if you’ve got a job, try as you might you’re not going to be able to focus on work, you’ll be focused on your heart and what it is telling you.”
McGuinty is also calling on the federal government to make the caregiver leave time eligible for employment insurance (EI) benefits, which it did for the family medical leave plan.
However, the opposition Progressive Conservatives said McGuinty should have worked out an EI deal with Ottawa before making the announcement.
“He’s obviously not talked to the federal government,” said opposition critic Jim Wilson. “He’s basically saying, ‘Take eight weeks off, fend for yourself and without legislation, we’ll make sure you keep your job.’”
The New Democrats said the plan wouldn’t help families that can’t afford to go two months without a paycheque.
“The reality is the vast majority of families are struggling just to make ends meet and they can’t afford to take eight weeks off without pay,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “So a plan for unpaid leave is one that leaves a lot of families still in the lurch.”
McGuinty said the government would work with doctors to set the criteria for the caregiver leave to prevent abuse of the new program, and he rejected Tory suggestions the plan could be bad for businesses that have to give workers the time off.
“If you talk to employers, it turns out, every one of them, they’re either a mom or a dad or a brother or a sister or a son or a daughter or an aunt or an uncle … and they know what families go through at times like this,” said McGuinty. “The other thing that we’ve learned, when you have family friendly workplace policies, and you support those as an employer, loyalty and productivity goes way up.”