Canada is hiking wages for essential workers across the country, in a blunt admission that many who are now risking their health to work during the pandemic are in some cases making the least.
“If you are risking your health to keep this country moving and you’re making minimum wage, you deserve a raise,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this week, making good on a promise to increase salaries.
Trudeau’s government hammered out an agreement with provinces and territories to spend more than $3 billion and raise wages for essential workers making less than about $1,800 a month.
“I think one of the things that we’re seeing through this pandemic is that there are people who are tremendously economically vulnerable, and vulnerable in other ways in our society, who are extremely important to the functioning of our society,” Trudeau said.
One of Canada’s largest health care unions, representing about 60,000 workers, welcomed the news but cautioned that workers need to see money in their pockets soon, without bureaucracy getting in the way.
“Frontline essential workers now are exhausted, they’re terrified, they’ve got colleagues in every sector dying. It’s nice to hear but they are exhausted from that and they want to see those words turned into action now,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, in an interview with CNN Friday.
Stewart said three health care workers have died from Covid-19 among her membership, and the lack of personal protective equipment has been an ongoing issue, as has been the guarantee of earning a living wage.
“The essential service workers that right now help save our lives and care for our loved ones are a lot of the minimum wage earners, the lowest paid in society. They have precarious work and our lives are depending on them right now,” said Stewart.
Each jurisdiction can decide who will be eligible for the raise, but front line health care workers and some food industry employees will be given priority.
Health care system needs more workers
Provinces have been struggling to fill positions in hard-hit senior homes that have been ravaged by the virus.
“Our biggest challenge remains the lack of staff in our health care system,” said Quebec Premier François Legault during a press conference Thursday.
Legault welcomed the injection of money from the federal government and said his province has already been trying to encourage people back to work with bonuses and hourly wage increases, but there is still a shortage of frontline workers.
Canada continues to struggle with hundreds of coronavirus outbreaks in senior homes throughout the country.
About 80% of those who have died from Covid-19 in Canada were residents of long-term care centers.
Canada says it will deploy more than 1,600 soldiers to senior homes in Quebec and Ontario in the coming days to make up for acute staffing shortages. Trudeau acknowledges that soldiers shouldn’t be taking care of seniors and said he will be looking to work with the provinces to find a lasting solution.
“We know, however, that once we get through this, in the months and years to come, we’re also going to have to have reflections about how we manage and how we maintain our long-term care facilities, how we support essential workers who are very low paid, how we move forward as a society to make sure that our vulnerable are properly taken care of and properly rewarded for the important work they do,” he said.
Stewart said that while it was gratifying to see marginalized essential workers get the pay and recognition they deserve, politicians like Trudeau need to guarantee that his isn’t just an emergency pay increase but a lasting, stable, living wage.
“This didn’t just happen nine weeks ago, these people have been underpaid … and the pandemic just shot a big spotlight on the problem,” Stewart said.