Ottawa Under Pressure to Extend Business and Worker COVID-19 Benefits Ahead of Oct. 23 Deadline

The federal government is facing calls from business and labour leaders to extend emergency COVID-19 benefits before they expire on Oct. 23, a move that was not explicitly promised in the Liberal Party’s election platform. Those who support extensions, including the federal NDP, note that the Canadian economy has not yet fully recovered from the pandemic, and that some parts of the country are currently experiencing an alarming fourth wave of the virus.

The most popular pandemic-relief programs for business – the government’s wage and rent subsidies – are scheduled to end Oct. 23, along with a suite of programs for individuals who lost work because of COVID-19, including the Canada Recovery Benefit, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit.

Perrin Beatty, the president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said too many businesses are still coping with public-health limits that prevent them from being self-sustaining. “It’s critical [the subsidies] continue,” Mr. Beatty said. “Having brought them this far, we can’t allow people to drown 50 feet from shore.”

Many businesses have relied on federal funds to make up pandemic-related shortfalls. According to government data, the wage subsidy, which is intended to help employers make payroll, has so far sent $93.4-billion to 4.4 million applicants, while the rent subsidy, which covers a percentage of a business’s rent, has paid $6.5-billion to 1.7 million applicants.

Earlier this year, the federal government unveiled an alternative to the wage subsidy, called the Canada Recovery Hiring Program, which covers some of the cost of taking on new employees. During the recent election campaign, the Liberals did not promise to extend all COVID-19 benefits. Instead, the party’s platform included $405-million to extend the Canada Recovery Hiring Program. The party also promised $689-million to provide temporary wage and rent supports to the tourism sector only. 

Business groups that spoke to The Globe and Mail, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Retail Council of Canada, Restaurants Canada and the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, all suggested most of their members preferred to access the wage subsidy instead of the hiring benefit.

Source: Globe and Mail

Ottawa Could Push Provinces on COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate for Workers

Senior federal officials were told in the spring that the government could make it mandatory for all workers across Canada to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The Trudeau Liberals have promised to bring in mandatory vaccination requirements for federally regulated workers, such as those employed by transportation, banks and telecommunications companies. Those workers account for less than one-tenth of all workers in Canada, with the remainder falling under provincial labour laws.

Although the Constitution puts public health under the purview of provinces and territories, internal documents say the federal government could consider making the COVID-19 vaccines “a national interest item.” The next step after that would be to either work with provinces and territories on a set of guidelines, or develop their own.

The documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the access-to-information law say that such a move wasn’t contemplated heading toward the summer. It wasn’t until June that the federal Liberals began hinting at a vaccine mandate for federally regulated workers, and then outlined the pledge days before the federal election campaign.

When asked recently about the pledge, which carried an implementation date of Oct. 30, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t provide an updated timeline or details of what was coming. The Liberals have been asked for months to co-ordinate vaccine mandates with provinces to avoid a hodgepodge of policies across jurisdictions and between businesses themselves, fuelled by differing ideas and legal opinions.

“It’s very clear that you can talk to your employees about their vaccination status, encourage them to be vaccinated, but it’s not clear at all that you’re able to require it or terminate them if they’re not,” said Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Constitutionally, the federal government can impose on provincial jurisdiction during an emergency and courts would likely be deferential to such action during the pandemic, said Martha Jackman, a constitutional-law expert from the University of Ottawa.

In the spring, federal labour officials were telling employers that they wouldn’t “seek compliance” on any recommendations from public-health officials related to vaccinations, with the documents noting the Canada Labour Code is silent on vaccine requirements. “This position would only change should these vaccines be made mandatory under the law,” part of the documents say. The documents also suggest that challenges by workers to such a policy would be fraught because of how safe the vaccines are.

The Canadian Press sought documents prepared between March and late June for the deputy minister of labour as well as Labour Minister Filomena Tassi on the topic of vaccination rules for workers. As part of the package were several pages of questions and answers, including one about whether government should set regulations to make vaccines mandatory.

“No,” the answer begins, “at this time, there are few to no arguments in favour of governments making vaccines in workplaces mandatory.” Officials wrote that any consideration of making legislative or regulatory changes related to vaccines needed to keep in mind the constitutionally protected rights, including freedom of religion, that “protect anyone from having to be vaccinated against their will.”

Source: Globe and Mail

Ontario Throne Speech Pledges No ‘Painful’ Tax Hikes or Spending Cuts

Ontario’s economic recovery will be fuelled by growth and not “painful tax hikes or spending cuts,” the government said in a Throne Speech on October 4. It also pledged the use of “localized and targeted” public-health restrictions to avoid lockdowns and contain COVID-19.

A masked Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell read out the Speech from the Throne, which is meant to lay out the government’s agenda. The six-page speech was almost entirely devoted to the pandemic, largely outlining actions the government has already taken or pledged to take. Opposition leaders criticized the government for failing to detail any new initiatives to fight COVID-19 or to help Ontario’s economy recover.

The government did use the speech to warn of “significant fiscal challenges” ahead, caused by its “unprecedented levels of spending.” (The province’s deficit, largely driven by pandemic spending, came in at $16.4-billion last year – less than half the record $38.5-billion originally forecast.)

But the Throne Speech says the government would not resort to “painful tax hikes or spending cuts” and would instead rely on boosting economic growth. It also pledged to build new roads and highways, and expand public transit to “communities across the province.” More details on the government’s plans were expected to be revealed in a fall economic statement due within weeks.

The speech acknowledged that COVID-19 cases may rise as the fall weather drives more people to spend time indoors. But it said health officials are monitoring the burdens on hospitals and their intensive care units and any future public-health restrictions would be “localized and targeted.” According to the Lieutenant-Governer, “[t]he ultimate goal, shared by all, is avoiding future lockdowns.”

The speech reiterated the government’s previous pledges to expand capacity and improve care in the province’s long-term care homes, where more than 3,800 residents and staff died with COVID-19 despite Premier Doug Ford’s promise of an “iron ring” of protection. The speech also said the government’s new long-term care legislation, coming this fall, would improve “accountability, enforcement and transparency” in the sector.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the Throne Speech “thin gruel” that contained nothing new to help patients, students, workers or businesses. She said she would have pushed to hire thousands of nurses and to decrease class sizes in schools. Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca accused Mr. Ford of being “in hiding for months,” and said he was disappointed to see no movement on talks between Ontario and the federal government on a deal to bring in $10-a-day child care.

Source: Globe and Mail