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McGuinty promises eight-week unpaid leave for family caregivers

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is seen during a speech in Oakville, Ont., Feb. 11, 2011

Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press/Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

A program that guarantees jobs for people who take time off work to care for a terminally ill loved one will be extended to more families if the Liberals win the Oct. 6 Ontario election, Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday.

Ontario's existing family medical leave plan allows people to take an eight-week unpaid leave of absence to care for a loved one who is dying, and guarantees their job will be there when they return.

A new family caregiver leave program would extend the same right to people who have a family member that has a serious injury or illness, including cancer or a stroke, Mr. McGuinty announced after touring Ronald McDonald House in downtown Toronto.

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"There are, from time to time, circumstances that unfold in our own families that absolutely demand that we be there and provide care and support," he said. "And if you've got a job, try as you might you're not going to be able to focus on work, you'll be focused on your heart and what it is telling you."

Families staying at Ronald McDonald House, which provides shelter to parents with seriously ill children who are receiving treatment at local hospitals, applauded Mr. McGuinty's announcement.

Michelle Stinson of Peterborough has been staying at the house for six months while her daughter Ashley waited for a new heart, which she received on July 31, her 11th birthday. Michelle may need to take more time off work to care for Ashley as she recovers, and said it would be good to know her job is protected.

"It's still classified as terminal after the first year, and this sort of compassionate leave would come in very, very handy for us if we require it," said Stinson. "If she took ill — transplant victims do get sick — so it may be something we would have to utilize for sure."

Mr. McGuinty called on the federal government to make the caregiver leave time eligible for employment insurance benefits, which it did for the family medical leave plan.

"It is unpaid leave, but it allows you to be with that family member, that loved one, at a time which is so important to you and to them," he said. "It's all about ensuring that moms and dads can take up to eight weeks away from the job, have that job protected for them."

The Progressive Conservatives said Mr. McGuinty should have worked out an EI deal with Ottawa before making the announcement.

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"He's obviously not talked to the federal government. I'd be embarrassed if I was him," said Opposition critic Jim Wilson. He's basically saying 'Take eight weeks off, fend for yourself and without legislation, we'll make sure you keep your job.'"

The New Democrats said the Liberal plan wouldn't be much help to most families that can't afford to go two months without a paycheque and promised an NDP government would provide more help and care for people in their homes.

"The reality is the vast majority of families are struggling just to make ends meet and they can't afford to take eight weeks off without pay," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. "So a plan for unpaid leave is one that leaves a lot of families still in the lurch."

Mr. McGuinty said the government would work with doctors to set the criteria for the caregiver leave to prevent abuse of the new program, and he rejected Tory suggestions the plan could be bad for businesses who have to give workers the time off.

"If you talk to employers, it turns out, every one of them, they're either a mom or a dad or a brother or a sister or a son or a daughter or an aunt or an uncle ... and they know what families go through at times like this," said McGuinty. "The other thing that we've learned, when you have family friendly workplace policies, and you support those as an employer, loyalty and productivity goes way up."

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