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Don’t have benefits? Ontario wants to change that — but critics worry it’ll come at a cost


Don’t have benefits? Ontario wants to change that — but critics worry it’ll come at a cost

If you don’t have benefits in your job, how much could you afford to pay a month for health and dental coverage?

The Ontario government wants to know the answer to that and other questions as it begins public consultations on a portable benefits plan for millions of “precarious” workers — people in the gig economy and sectors like retail and hospitality where coverage can be harder to come by.

“The nature of work has changed,” Labour Minister Monte McNaughton said in an interview Tuesday. “We have some people working two and three jobs today and we need to ensure that we have health and dental benefits that follow the employee.”

Announced earlier this year before the June 2 election campaign, the plan — which would be the first of its kind in North America — has garnered attention for its potential to fill a growing gap in supports for workers.

But it has also raised concerns workers could be asked to foot the bill themselves when the government should be improving social programs or getting employers who don’t yet provide benefits to step up.

New Democrat labour critic Jamie West, MPP for Sudbury, fears unscrupulous companies could use a government-designed benefits plan as an excuse to scrap their own.

“I’m a little concerned that this may just be a way to open the door so that employers could just drop their benefits packages completely,” he told the Star.

Some workers in marginal jobs, such as food deliveries, might have difficulty affording monthly premiums, West added, making it crucial that employers be required to make a contribution.

“We need a system that is looking at how much is the employer contributing as well, because they get a gain from the employee. It’s a shared responsibility.”


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McNaughton said an expert panel will report by next summer on how the plan should be structured and funded for the approximately 25 per cent of Ontario workers who have no benefits coverage.

“It’s just too soon to tell right now exactly how it’s going to be implemented, but we’ve tasked the panel with providing me a blueprint so we can move forward with portable benefits as quickly as possible,” he added.

“The panel is actively consulting with industry.”

The Ontario Federation of Labour said it will urge the government to force companies to treat anyone who works for them as staff and not freelancers.

“We will continue to assert that gig workers — and all other misclassified workers — should be classified as employees, not as ‘independent contractors,’” said federation president Patty Coates.

“These workers should be fully covered by the Employment Standards Act or the Labor Relations Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act, with no exceptions or carve-outs.”

Coates slammed the government for not putting any representatives from labour organizations on the five-person expert panel, headed by Susan McArthur, a former federal Conservative candidate and investment banker. A worker representative on the panel is a sommelier who worked for years in the hospitality industry, mostly without benefits.

The public consultation wraps up Dec. 16.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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