As Ontario Premier Doug Ford admitted he and his government were wrong in not recognizing the importance of paid sick time during the pandemic, he revealed his government is now working to bridge the gap that exists in signing up for federal sick time benefits.
"I know we got it wrong. I know we made a mistake and for that I am sorry and I sincerely apologize," for said Thursday. Ford said he was also apologizing for the stricter measures the province imposed last week on such things as limited outdoor recreation and increasing police powers.
"Because as premier and as I have said right from the beginning, the bucks stops with me. Again I am sorry and I apologize to each and every one of you."
Ford also made reference to the fact he was on the Zoom teleconference call from "isolation" at his home because a member of his staff tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. Although the premier tested negative for the virus, he was exposed to it and sent home. The premier said he recognized that not everyone has the same privilege he has of being able to work from home and continue to collect a cheque.
"I assure you it is not lost on me that unlike many people I am able to isolate and continue working," he said.
"For too many people right now that is not the case. And during these unprecedented times, regardless of where you work or what you do, if you're forced to go into isolation or quarantine, your job should be safe," said Ford
"That's why Ontario was the first province to introduce legislation to have job-protected leave for COVID, but it isn't enough to know you can't lose your job," he added.
"You also need to know you won't lose your income. If you're living paycheque to paycheque you shouldn't have to wait long for the support you need."
He said that he and other Ontario ministers have been working for several months with the federal government, hoping to fix some issues with the federal sick pay program.
"Unfortunately Monday's federal budget didn't include the important improvements to the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit that we needed to see. That's why we are now working on our own solution to fill those gaps for everyone in Ontario," said Ford
"Because I want workers to know as I have right from the beginning, I will always have your back," he said.
Ford's change of heart of sick leave benefits goes against the stand he has argued for months, saying that paid benefits were not necessary because of the federal program. Also, it was earlier this week that the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario and the COVID-19 Science Table both spoke up in separate forums arguing that improved sick pay benefits are in fact a good public health policy.
The argument is that too many workers who do not feel well would rather go to work -- and possibly spread the virus -- instead of staying at home to get COVID-19 testing and self-isolating. The concern is that too many marginalized workers cannot afford to stay home from work unless there are better, and quicker, sick benefits.
Without providing specific details, Ford said his government is now working on a solution.
At one point in the teleconference, Ford appeared to get emotional as he talked about the impact the pandemic is having on ordinary citizens.
"I know that these lockdowns can be devastating for people. It means telling someone they can't see their family or take a vacation. It means forcing someone to close their business, lose their paycheque. It means telling someone not to properly celebrate a wedding, or sadly be able to mourn the loss of someone we love.”
Ford stopped talking to take a sip of water.
"People telling me their stories, the stories that uh...(voice breaks) to make you cry."
Ford paused and appeared to be holding back tears.
It was just a year ago that Ford's mother-in-law tested positive for COVID-19 and had to endure isolation, alone, in a long-term care home while Ford and his wife Karla were not allowed to visit the woman.
Although the premier has come under intense criticism in the past week for the measures his government has imposed with a provincial lockdown, Ford said he has relied on medical advisors to tell him what course of action is best. He admitted that some measures were not successful.
"I want all of you to know I will always try to do what's right. And that means if we get something wrong or make a mistake we will fix it as soon as we can like we did this past weekend," he said.
But I know that many people continue to be unhappy right now. I understand and I accept the responsibility for that. Let me be clear, when it comes to protecting lives, protecting our hospitals and our people we can't waver," said Ford.
"But at this stage in the pandemic, over a year into this, going through this terrible third wave, I assure you that there are no easy choices left."
Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com, covering health care in Northern Ontario. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the federal government.