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COMMENTARY: Caregivers deserve a raise

Sylvie has made a career as a home care worker for 45 years, yet she still needs two roommates to make ends meet. She needs pay equity.

Tammy is now in her 11th year as a crisis intervener in a transition house for women fleeing violence, and she cannot afford to purchase her own house. She needs pay equity.

Jessica works in a community residence where she cares for troubled youth. But even by working overtime, she cannot afford to start her own family. She needs pay equity.

Lesley is a community service worker supporting people with mental illness. Despite having a postsecondary degree and 28 years experience in the field, she still had to use the food bank. She needs pay equity.

They are four of the over 12,000 workers – mostly of women – in New Brunswick’s caregiving sector. These caregivers provide care and services to children, seniors, people living with a disability or a mental illness, and women fleeing violence. And earning between $14 to $16.80 an hour.

The Value of Care

Throughout this pandemic, caregivers have been referred to as “essential” workers. However, their low wages and poor working conditions reflect that they’re treated as anything but essential. Instead, they are systematically underpaid, undervalued and overworked with little to no benefits or paid sick leave. In fact, New Brunswick's caregiving workforce is among the lowest paid in the country.

Caregiving calls for more than heart. It requires professional training, is both physically and emotionally demanding, and involves dangerous, even hazardous, working conditions. The value of that work should be reflected in the workers’ paycheck.

Pay equity would ensure they earn equal pay for work of equal value. To achieve pay equity, the value of female-dominated jobs must be compared to the value of male-dominated jobs according to the skills, responsibilities, effort and working conditions required for the job.

A pay equity exercise conducted by the New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity found that fair wages should be about $22 to nearly $26 an hour, exposing a wage gap between $ 6.67 and $ 10.73 an hour, depending on the service.

It is no surprise that New Brunswick women are more than twice as likely as men to find themselves living in poverty after their cross into retirement age. In caring for the most vulnerable New Brunswickers, caregivers are made vulnerable themselves by their low wages.

It is as if these workers subsidized the government.

The Price of Care

As the provincial government announced a budget surplus for the fourth consecutive year—a whopping $408.5 million for the 2020-21 fiscal year—it is clear that it can afford wage adjustments. If fair wages are a government priority…

The Coalition recommends that the government develop a five-year plan with annual wage adjustments to achieve pay equity in the whole sector. Currently, any wage adjustments are the purview of the budget process.

This gives caregivers no assurance or predictability about future investments and feeds the instability of the sector. This situation offers few prospects for those entering the profession, and little hope for those who are nearing the end of their careers that they will ever receive a fair wage before they retire—if they can afford it.

A sector in crisis

The widespread and chronic underfunding of the wages in the sector has led to serious challenges in recruiting and retaining qualified personnel.  The shortage of workers in the sector is not a recent phenomenon. It is neither a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, nor a by-product of the temporary Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

If there are labour shortages in the caregiving sector, it is mainly because caregivers are learning they are worth more.

And this crisis is growing. The workforce is aging, which spells disaster for a sector that is already struggling to ensure the minimum hours of care for many of its residents.

Before COVID-19, one in every four hospital beds was occupied by a patient requiring alternate levels of care, because there was, and still is, an insufficient number of personnel to care for them in long-term care facilities.

When the caregivers themselves retire and need care themselves, will there be any one left to care for them? Or for you?

It is time to act!

At the moment, the focus is on the upcoming Speech from the Throne. It must prioritize the caregiver sector and provide the funding it rightly deserves.

For too long, we have relied on female labour to provide essential care work, with very few incentives to do that work. We need to improve the working conditions and wages of the caregiving workers until they reach pay equity.

Because if they don’t care, who will?


Krysta Cowling
Chair of the New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity