The wages of fear: The pandemic and the future of low-paid 'essential' work

When the pandemic crisis ends, Canadians are going to have to reckon with the fact that the 'essential' workers who got them through it are some of the lowest-paid people among us.

Those on the economy's bottom rungs have been bearing too much of the risk for too little

An Ottawa grocery store worker says people are starting to ignore or flout the rules limiting certain purchases and the number of people in the store. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered for triggering the single largest shutdown of paid work in Canada's history.

But this crisis also might change how we define "essential" work, and the value we put on it.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first said in April the federal government was willing to assist the provinces in increasing wages for "essential workers," he pointed to those working at long-term care centres.

"As we face an unprecedented threat to public health, you are our most important line of defence," he said. "We will do whatever we can to help you do your job and support you through this time."

But what Trudeau announced on Thursday has at least the potential to be applied more broadly — something that was confirmed hours later when Prince Edward Island announced what it would do with its share of the federal funding.

Under P.E.I.'s program, all those currently earning less than $3,000 per month while working for a business that has been declared "essential" will be eligible for a subsidy of $1,000. And that money is going not just to those who work in long-term care centres, but also to those who work for grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, laundromats and other services.

Low pay, high risk

The provincial government estimates that approximately 17,000 workers could be eligible.

If you had been asked to draw up a list of "essential" services before this crisis began, you might have listed the obvious ones: doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, maybe some civil servants.

But the scramble for social distancing and self-isolation has revealed how much we depend on grocery store clerks. And the countless tragedies at long-term care centres has exposed how much risk has been offloaded onto low-paid personal support workers.

"It will be up to each province and territory to determine who exactly qualifies for this wage increase," Trudeau said on Thursday, "but the bottom line is this. If you are risking your health to keep this country moving and you're still making minimum wage, you deserve a raise."

Falling off the bottom rung of the income ladder

But David Macdonald, an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, noted on Friday that the latest labour statistics also showed that those earning the least have been the ones hardest hit by the economic shutdown: slightly more than 50 per cent of those who were earning $16 per hour or less have lost either their jobs or most of their hours over the last two months.

Even before Friday's numbers were released, Macdonald wrote that low-wage workers could soon be faced with an "impossible choice": return to workplaces that don't provide adequate pandemic protections, or stay home and lose access to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

How widespread this problem could be will depend on how well businesses adapt to protect both their employees and their customers, and on how well provinces enforce new labour standards. But Macdonald rightly notes that the CERB currently does not provide for those who "voluntarily" quit their jobs or refuse to work because of unsafe conditions — an issue the NDP has called on the government to address.

"Health versus income is an impossible choice, and one no worker should be forced to make," Macdonald wrote.

Who has the right to refuse risky work?

The CERB is not the only possible recourse. Provinces are largely responsible for labour standards in Canada and each has its own laws and protections. Workers in federally regulated sectors have the right to refuse dangerous work.

Adjusting the CERB to allow for claims of unsafe work conditions also might not be easy. The federal government presumably would have to establish a process for adjudicating disputes between employers and employees.

But as businesses are allowed to reopen and workers are asked to return, there will be mounting pressure on governments to ensure that employees aren't being pushed into accepting unnecessary risks. Already, the situation in meat-processing facilities might lead to the conclusion that workers need to be empowered to protect themselves, beyond even the threat of COVID-19.

Workers prepare beef to be packaged at the Cargill facility near High River, Alta. The plant is the site of what became the largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America. (Name withheld)

The CERB and the extension of extra pay for essential workers are still just temporary measures. Whenever this emergency passes, there will be a debate about possible long-term changes.

"I think this is one of the first recessions we've ever seen that has so hard hit vulnerable workers in the service sector, particularly women and new Canadians and young people," Trudeau said on Friday.

"That's why, as a society, not only do we need to do what we are doing in the short term to give extra supports to vulnerable people, but we need to make sure that as we move forward … we think very, very carefully about how important the work that is being done by women and vulnerable Canadians is, and how we need to make sure we're better supporting them."

Paying corporations to pay their people better

Macdonald notes that the funding offered this week to increase the compensation for essential workers "may well be paying for raises of employees who work for profitable companies who should be paying for those raises themselves."

Some companies may have done so already. Loblaws, for instance, increased wages for its employees by $2 per hour in late March.

But another target for post-pandemic reform might be the minimum wage.

An expert panel recommended in January 2019 that the Trudeau government establish a new federal minimum wage and the Liberals promised in their fall election platform to set it at $15 starting in 2020 (increasing with inflation thereafter).

A federal minimum wage would only apply to workers in federally regulated sectors — approximately 67,000 of those workers earned less than $15 per hour in 2017. But a higher minimum wage at the federal level has at least the potential to pull up provincial minimum wages.

That's just one possible route for reform. Others will emerge.

But every crisis brings change. In this case, that change might start at the front lines of this pandemic — the long-term care centres, the meat-processing plants and the grocery stores.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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