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Opinion

Partisan bickering is a normal part of the political process in any legislature. It goes with the territory.

For the most part, it is treated for what it’s worth: cheap attempts by players on all sides to discredit each other and claim moral superiority. Most of it is ignored, as it should be — except when it shouldn’t.

The sniping on Broadway this week is an example of how overheated politics can spill into the community and cause harm. The political one-upmanship over a federal sick leave program has caused so much confusion, some may think they’re not eligible for the benefit.

The Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit announced last month by Ottawa provides eligible individuals who have to stay home when sick — or self-isolate because of COVID-19 — with a $500/week benefit for two weeks. It’s not much, but it may make the difference between someone staying home (and not spreading the novel coronavirus) and going to work (and potentially endangering others).

The federal program has nothing to do with the province. It’s a stand-alone item, financed entirely by Ottawa.

The only action required by Manitoba was to amend its employment standards code to ensure people who stayed home from work while sick didn’t lose their jobs. The Manitoba government made those changes in the spring.

If someone is sick or has to self-isolate, they are eligible (and have been for several weeks) for the federal benefit, and are granted a leave of absence under provincial law.

A bill before the Manitoba legislature this week would further amend the employment standards code to add another category: people who are more susceptible to the virus because of an underlying health condition, other illness or ongoing medical treatment, would also be granted a leave of absence. They’re already eligible for the federal benefit.

It closes a gap that became apparent once Ottawa released the details of its program in late September.

However, Premier Brian Pallister has been giving the false impression that, until the current bill before the Manitoba legislature passes, some people who are sick may not be eligible for the federal benefit.

"Our first priority is protecting the health and well-being of all Manitobans, and this legislation would save workers from making the difficult decision whether to earn a paycheque or stay home while sick," Pallister said in a Monday release.

The statement is inaccurate.

The premier went on to say during a news conference later that day the proposed legislation would also protect customers and clients who may otherwise be exposed to sick employees.

The proposed legislation has nothing to do with sick employees; those who are ill can already stay home and collect the federal benefit.

What Pallister is doing is confusing the public about who is and who is not eligible for federal support.

It's a shameful disservice.

The premier seems to be more concerned about trying to take credit for a federal program than he is about providing clarity to Manitobans about the federal program.

The province has provided no funding whatsoever for paid sick leave. By conflating amendments to the provincial employment standards code with benefits paid by Ottawa, the premier is trying to create the impression Manitoba is a partner.

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Wab Kinew is no better. He added to the confusion this week, suggesting some people may be denied paid sick leave because the provincial Liberals held up the employment standards amendment bill.

(The bill, introduced Monday, required unanimous consent of the house to pass in one day. The Liberals declined, arguing they want it improved.)

"For months, we have been pushing for paid sick leave so people can stay home when they’re sick," said Kinew.

People do have paid sick leave. They can apply for it right now.

With cases of COVID-19 surging at record levels and patients piling up in hospital, now would be a good time for politicians to tone down the political rhetoric and give the public the accurate information it needs.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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