Ontario Premier Doug Ford plans to return $1.5 billion in contributions to the fund that backs benefits for workers who are injured on the job.
The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) currently has reserves of $6.4 billion, more than enough to cover claims for workers’ compensation, said Monte McNaughton, the labor minister.
Ford’s government foresees sending money to as many as 300,000 businesses that have demonstrated “high levels of safety,” starting in April. Companies will receive up to $28,000 in one-time payments, money that McNaughton said will help smaller companies that have suffered most from COVID-19 lockdowns.
“The WSIB is in the best financial position in its history,” McNaughton said in an interview. “It’s wrong for the WSIB to have billions of dollars in their bank. It deserves to be in our local communities to grow our local economies.”
The rebate program is a facet of Ford’s Working for Workers Act, an omnibus bill introduced in October that was loaded with labor friendly policies. The legislation included provisions such as the “right to disconnect,” which mandates companies with more than 25 employees to create policies that outline employees’ rights to disengage from work after hours; guaranteed washroom access for delivery workers; and a ban on non-compete clauses in employee contracts.
Some observers of Ontario politics were surprised by the act, as Ford had a reputation for favoring business over labour. For those critics, the decision to return contributions to the workplace safety board will amount to a return to form. The rebate amounts to a 30-per-cent cut on premiums that employers pay to the WSIB. Ford is counting on companies to use the money to invest and hire.
COVID-19 has decimated many smaller businesses in Canada’s largest province, which has endured four lockdowns since the onslaught of COVID-19 infections. Many have grown pessimistic about the economic outlook as inflation eats into profits and supply shortages fail to meet burgeoning demand.
A February report by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce indicated that 29 per cent of firms are optimistic about the outlook of business conditions, compared with 21 per cent last year. Still, smaller businesses and those in border towns are less hopeful.
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“The greatest challenge we have economically in Ontario is the fact that 320,000 jobs are going unfilled today,” McNaughton said. “So this money can be used to pay people more and to attract employees to businesses out there.”
In 2018, the WSIB reached a sufficiency ratio exceeding 100 per cent for the first time. The sufficiency ratio compares board’s assets to its liabilities, such as payments owed to workers injured on the job.
Ford will be heading into an election this summer and the vote could turn into a referendum on his handling of the pandemic. McNaughton said there will be “more good things to come” when the legislature resumes next week. Among those things will be a “series of unprecedented support” for workers, according to the WSIB announcement.
“Workers aren’t getting a fair share of their economic pie,” McNaughton said by phone. “Our mission is to give workers a hand up to better jobs and bigger paycheques.”
The minister added: “Things are changing and the economy’s changing and government needs to keep up with those changes. But we’re rewarding hard work and that’s a conservative principle.”
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