Alberta to provide paid job-protected leave in self-isolation tied to coronavirus

Premier Jason Kenney says employees will not need doctor notes

Alberta is changing labour laws to provide 14 days of paid leave for workers who self-isolate due to the novel coronavirus or who are caring for someone with COVID-19, the disease linked to it.

But the Opposition NDP is wondering who will fund it.

Premier Jason Kenney says employees will not need doctor notes, nor will they have had to work for 90 days previously to qualify.

“Our priority is public safety and health, and we will make sure that no one has to choose between work and doing what is necessary to protect public health,” Kenney said Friday.

“We don’t want Albertans impacted by COVID-19 to feel that they must go to work to sustain their income so they can pay their bills and take care of their families.”

He said officials are still working out details, but added: “I want to assure employers that we will ensure these actions will not be a further burden to your business.”

Kenney said he is also urging the federal government to further expand employment insurance benefits during the pandemic.

After the meeting, Kenney met with NDP Leader Rachel Notley to discuss fast-tracking passage of the budget during the coronavirus crisis.

Notley said Kenney told her that it is his expectation the province is not funding the paid leave, but instead expect the feds to cover off such payments through employment insurance.

“They are not actually providing paid sick leave,” said Notley. “They are hoping that the federal government will expand access to EI.”

“(The issue) absolutely needs to be clarified.”

Notley said if the province wanted to go it alone and make employers pay for 14 days’ sick leave, they would need to pass legislation, which her NDP would support, with a provision to refund employers for their costs.

Christine Myatt, the premier’s spokeswoman, responded to Notley’s comments in a statement: “We’ll have more on this in the coming days.”

Earlier this week, the Alberta Federation of Labour called on the province to adopt paid leave around the coronavirus, saying that too many people live paycheque to paycheque and may not self-isolate as necessary in order to provide for themselves and their families.

Also Friday, Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, announced six new cases of the virus, bringing the total number in the province to 29.

Publicly funded schools will remain open, along with daycares and post-secondary institutions.

“I know many parents and teachers are worried about the risk of COVID in schools,” said Hinshaw. “(But) school closures are not universally agreed on as an effective intervention to prevent spread.”

She also said school closures would need to go on for months, not weeks, to be effective. In the meantime, students would still be at risk of spreading the virus in other venues.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said that billing rules are also being altered so doctors can get paid $20 per call when giving COVID-19 advice over the phone.

He said Health Link 811, the health information phone line, is getting more than 6,300 calls daily. The province is working on reducing call wait times with more staff.

Shandro addressed concerns there could be nurse layoffs and other staff reductions after April 1, when the new budget year begins, as part of long-term planned changes to health spending.

“This (crisis) has definitely changed everything,” said Shandro, who said he expects staffing increases to deal with the outbreak.

“There are not going to be any layoffs of (Alberta Health Services) employees during the COVID-19 response,” he said.

Notley said she is skeptical the province will increase funding to health care and avoid layoffs given the budget now before the legislature cuts jobs and money.

She said she rejected Kenney’s request to fast-track the budget, saying it makes more sense to go slower and make sure the government backs up its new health promises with money.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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