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Ontario sees dramatic spike in number of parents seeking government compensation during teacher strikes

The province has seen a huge spike in applications from parents for child-care compensation in the wake of escalating teacher strike action, with payouts requested for almost half a million children.

In one day alone — from Tuesday to Wednesday — more than 100,000 applications were received, signalling a 34 per cent jump and making it the greatest increase in a single day since Education Minister Stephen Lecce launched the compensation program in mid-January.

On Wednesday — the same day the province blamed a computer glitch for an overpayment to some parents — the government had received applications on behalf of 458,466 children, a dramatic surge from Tuesday’s figures of 342,856. The initiative pays up to $60 per day per child. According to the ministry, 1.45 million children are eligible.

“The uptake in applications for our Support for Parents Initiative can be attributed to the increasing amount of frustration that families across the province face as they scramble for child care as a result of union-led escalation,” said the minister’s press secretary Alexandra Adamo on Thursday.

Adamo’s comments came on the same day Ontario’s public elementary schools were closed because of a provincewide strike by all 83,000 members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), which has been running rotating strikes affecting different boards each day.

Job action by ETFO, which represents elementary teachers, early childhood educators and other educators, has left some parents having to find child care because of the teacher strikes, now in their third week. In Toronto, for instance, public elementary schools have been closed twice, and students will miss another day of classes Friday. Next week, the city’s public grade schools will be closed on Feb. 11 — part of a provincewide strike by ETFO — as well as the following day because the Toronto public board, along with several others, will be impacted.

In a media statement this week, ETFO president Sam Hammond said fair contract talks with the province must include appropriate funding for special education, a strategy to address classroom violence and fair hiring practices. All four of the province’s teachers unions are engaged in contract negotiations with the province and have launched work-to-rule campaigns. Unions representing Catholic elementary and secondary teachers in English schools (Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association), and public high school teachers (Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation), have also held walkouts, but have not scheduled future dates.

Unions say they are opposed to the province’s plan to introduce two mandatory online courses for secondary students and to boost high school class size averages, which will lead to fewer teachers jobs and courses. But Lecce insists the main sticking point is salary, with the province offering a one per cent increase, while unions want cost of living increases, or about two per cent.

The Progressive Conservative government announced the compensation program on Jan. 15, offering to pay parents for each day a school or school-based child-care centre is closed because of teacher strikes. The initiative was harshly criticized by some, including Hammond, who called it an attempt to “bribe” parents for support. Since mid-January, the number of applications has steadily risen, with jumps along the way whenever unions announced they were escalating job action. Some parents have said they applied for the funds and intend to donate them to schools or teachers unions.

This week’s dramatic one-day spike coincided with a Star story in Wednesday’s newspaper about the previous day’s application figures, which amounted to less than a quarter of those eligible for reimbursement. That meant millions of dollars were still on the table — the money for parents comes from unpaid teachers’ salaries on strike days. The story also noted that ETFO was ramping up job action for a fourth week.

Also on Wednesday, parents were on social media sharing stories of overpayment by the government, some saying they had been paid three or four times more than they should have been and assuming they were paid in advance for strike days that hadn’t yet occurred. It turned out that a systems problem resulted in school closures being miscalculated — the glitch has since been fixed — and led to some parents being overpaid, which the Star reported in Thursday’s newspaper. Figures for the number of parents who signed up for compensation on Thursday were not yet available at time of publication.

There is no cap on how many days parents will be paid for — so long as strike action continues, parents will be compensated. The province will pay $60 per day for children in a school-based child-care centre, and $40 a day for those in kindergarten, $25 for those in grades 1 to 7 and $40 for those with special needs up to Grade 12. Funds are paid per child and available to all families, regardless of financial hardship.

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The ministry says an additional 42,000 children not yet enrolled in school, may be eligible for the payout if their school-based child-care centre is closed.

In 1997, when teachers across Ontario hit the picket lines for two weeks to protest the education reforms of Bill 160, despite not being in a legal strike position, the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris also provided funds to parents. Families with children under age 13, regardless of how many kids they had, were paid $40 a day, if a parent or guardian couldn’t stay home to care for them. Claims for the 10-day strike could not exceed $400 per family.

With files from Star archives

Isabel Teotonio

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France braces for further strikes over pension changes | World news

French unions are staging a second round of mass street demonstrations as the country entered its sixth day of a nationwide strike and transport standstill over proposed plans to change the pensions system.

The government’s standoff with unions continued as the prime minister, Édouard Philippe, said he would stand firm and announce details of the pension changes on Wednesday, with speculation over possible concessions on the start date in order to diffuse growing tensions on the streets.

The government was watching Tuesday’s turnout after being caught off-guard by the scale of last week’s street protests when at least 800,000 people took part in one of the biggest demonstrations of trade union strength in a decade.

Crucially, the number of protesters has been particularly high in small provincial towns, echoing the mood of the gilets jaunes anti-government protests earlier this year. People are angry not only with pensions but low salaries, worsening prospects, the state of public services and what one demonstrator called “the feeling of being forgotten”.

Commuters wait on a platform at the Gare du Nord RER station on Tuesday morning

Commuters wait on a platform at the Gare du Nord RER station on Tuesday morning. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters

One local MP for president Emmanuel Macron’s party said it would be hard to tackle a protest movement that spread from pensions to several different grievances at once.

Across the country, transport turmoil continued on Tuesday with trains at a virtual halt, some flights grounded, 10 lines of the Paris metro closed and more than 300km of traffic jams on roads around Paris by 7am. Teachers, hospital staff, fire officers, air-traffic controllers and other public sector workers were expected to walk out alongside train drivers and transport workers.

In the greater Paris area, where more than 9 million people depend on an already overburdened public transport system each day, there were dangerous crushes on packed platforms as crowds of commuters tried to push on to the very few banlieue trains running at rush-hour.

Commuters wait at Gare de l’Est train station in Paris during a strike by SNCF workers and the Paris transport network RATP as part of a second day of nationwide strikes.

Commuters wait at Gare de l’Est train station in Paris during a strike by SNCF workers and the Paris transport network RATP. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Macron, the pro-business president who has promised to deliver the biggest “transformation” of the French social model and welfare system since the postwar era, regards his pension reforms as a key test.

He has staked his political credibility on refusing to buckle in the face of street protests, accusing previous presidents of lacking the resolve to stand strong. With Macron potentially aiming to run for a second term in office the 2022 presidential election, backing down would be to risk losing his support-base. But demonstrators said they feared France’s social safety net was being unpicked.

Union members and employees of the Paris transport network RATP block a bus depot in Les-Pavillons-sous-Bois near Paris

Union members and employees of the Paris transport network RATP block a bus depot in Les-Pavillons-sous-Bois near Paris. Photograph: Lucien Libert/Reuters

The government argues that unifying the French pensions system – and getting rid of the 42 “special” regimes for sectors ranging from rail and energy workers to lawyers and Paris Opera staff – is crucial to keep the system financially viable as the French population ages. But unions say the changes are an attack on fundamental worker rights, and fear people will have to work longer for smaller pensions.

Police ordered all shops to close on the route of the demonstration in southern Paris. Other big marches were planned in cities including Grenoble, Lyon and Rouen.

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