Ottawa extends pandemic programs, passes paid sick leave bill
The Senate gave quick approval Thursday to a new round of pandemic aid after Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland made a pre-Christmas plea to rubber-stamp the help and promised that benefits would flow quickly to businesses and workers in need.
Bill C-2 would provide targeted aid to businesses that are ordered closed and to workers sent home, as part of a local lockdown, as well as wage and rent subsidies to those still recovering from previous pandemic restrictions.
Freeland told senators the government created the measures in case there was another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and argued they’re needed even more now with the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
Just before Freeland’s appearance by video conference at the Senate, the House of Commons voted to fast-track the legislation to the upper chamber as one of its final acts before MPs agreed to leave the national capital for a winter break that will run until the end of January.
It isn’t unusual for the House of Commons to send bills to the Senate after MPs have gone on a break, and for the upper chamber to sit longer to deal with any lingering legislation.
But Sen. Scott Tannas told Freeland it has been happening too often for his liking and is limiting the Senate’s ability to review legislation as it should as the chamber of sober second thought.
The government is hoping the Senate passes a second bill sent to senators late Thursday, C-3, before breaking Friday for the holidays.
Tannas asked Freeland to persuade the government to “plan a little bit better, so that we are not backed into a corner,” adding a moment later: “We know that it’s difficult, but this is — we’re tired of this.”
The sentiments echoed by other senators came during 90 minutes of questioning Freeland faced to help get the final parliamentary sign-off on the new round of aid to workers and businesses that the government says will cost $7.4 billion.
Bill C-2 deems a lockdown to be when a health authority orders non-essential businesses closed and non-essential workers to stay home. Freeland said there may be some regions of the country that apply.
Although she didn’t put a specific time frame on when benefits start to flow, she said the government plans to use existing systems for applications and payments in order to quickly dole out aid.
“This is a fast-moving situation on the ground, as we are seeing provinces and territories quite appropriately, let me say, responding to COVID and to Omicron, and putting new restrictions in place,” she said.
Sick leave bill also fast-tracked to Senate
Bill C-3 — which would provide 10 days of paid sick leave for federally regulated workers and crack down on harassment and intimidation of health care workers — was also fast-tracked Thursday through the Commons without a recorded vote, and sent on to the Senate.
C-3 was passed with several amendments, one of which incorporated a Conservative private member’s bill providing for extended, unpaid bereavement leave for parents who experience a stillbirth or death of a child.
Two other amendments were intended to address concerns that workers would only slowly accumulate their entitlement to paid sick leave, at a rate of one day per month of work, and an employer could demand a doctor’s note to validate sick days off.
As amended, the bill now proposes that workers would accumulate three days of paid sick leave after one month and, after two months, would start accruing one additional sick day per month to a maximum of 10 days per year. Employers could still request a medical certificate but only when a worker claims more than five consecutive sick days.
Government House leader Mark Holland praised opposition parties for being “incredibly reasonable” and willing to collaborate to get all the Liberals’ priority bills quickly through the Commons in less than four weeks since the start of the new session of Parliament.
A third bill, banning the traumatic practice of conversion therapy, was approved by both parliamentary chambers earlier this month and has already received royal assent.
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