Opinion | The pandemic proved low-wage workers need better pay. So where are the solutions?

When Ontario Premier Doug Ford blurted out last week that personal support workers would be able to keep their pandemic $3-an-hour pay raise in perpetuity, he was echoing a moral imperative learned so painfully during the pandemic.

It’s not just PSWs but low-wage workers more broadly who were pummelled repeatedly by COVID-19, not just in terms of job loss but also in terms of exposure to the deadly virus, uncertain access to child care and unsafe work conditions.

“There’s a whole new level of gratitude and appreciation,” says federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi.

So if there’s a consensus or at least a widespread, gnawing intuition that PSWs and other low-wage workers need better pay, where are the solutions? Scattered all over the place, and not very coherently.

Just as the federal Parliament was winding down for the summer last month and rushing through legislation in advance of a probable election call, the Liberals pushed through a bundle of policy measures meant to improve wages and working conditions for low-wage and marginalized workers.

With the last-minute passage of the budget bill, Parliament agreed to legislate a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour. It applies only to federally regulated workplaces though — about six per cent of the workforce, including airports, banks, truck drivers who cross provincial or international borders and telecommunications.

The budget bill also included an expansion of the Canada Workers Benefit, which is a tax refund for low-income earners so that it’s worth their while to take poorly paid jobs rather than depend solely on social assistance or other government benefits. Officials say the new expansion makes the benefit available to about 1 million more people — mainly single people and women who are secondary earners in their families — bringing the total number of eligible recipients to 3.2 million.

And on Wednesday, the government published its final round of regulations for pay equity, bringing years of work to fruition and announcing it will come into force at the end of August. Federally regulated companies will have to do an analysis of the value of each job and then report into the federal pay equity commissioner. Employers will then have to compensate any employees who have been underpaid, or else face a public shaming and a daily fine of up to $50,000.

“All those initiatives taken together are a surefire and more (well)-rounded approach to supporting workers to ensure that low-wage earners are actually going to get more money in their pockets, and they’re going to feel really good about the work that they’re doing,” Tassi said in an interview with the Star.

Perhaps, but there are a lot of private-sector employers who are missed by this intricate web of regulation, standards and subsidies. Indeed, one could argue that the Canada Workers Benefit lets employers who pay low wages off the hook for providing their workers with a living wage, ensuring perpetual cheap labour.

Provinces are a big part of the puzzle, since they can and do set minimum wages and establish pay equity regimes for the large majority of companies. In Ontario, that’s been a roller coaster, with Ford at first scaling back his Liberal predecessor’s increases to minimum wages and sick days, and then partially reinstating them during the pandemic — including the $3 increase for PSWs.

Making that increase permanent would be a solid step, but the larger problem of essential workers — often women, often people of colour — being paid far less than their work is worth remains. And it looms large as we slowly digest the reality that this may not be our last pandemic, and it certainly isn’t our last public health crisis.

The more comprehensive fix will have to come from private-sector employers and unions directly. Right now, there is some hope that market forces are working in favour of better wages and working conditions for low-income workers. As the economy reopens, businesses are racing to scale up, competing for good employees.

In the United States, which is ahead of Canada in the reopening, the competition for workers has led to shortages and signs of rising wages. In Canada, the on-again-off-again pattern of lockdowns and reopenings means the trend is less clear.

Tassi argues that it’s in private-sector employers’ best interest to pay their workers well. As they see the federally regulated companies in action, they’ll realize a well-paid employee is a productive and innovative employee well worth the extra bucks. That “gratitude and appreciation” that we’ve discovered for low-wage workers during the pandemic will turn into dollars in their pockets and benefits for their family, she says.



But the workforce of tomorrow is in unprecedented flux. Automation, gig work and the new-found ability to work remotely suggests that the immediate rush to hire right now won’t necessarily become the lasting pressure on wages that a grateful society assumes.

And so this motley collection of federal and provincial policy that even now only buoys up some low-wage workers needs to be in flux too, continually modernizing along with the workforce.

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