Can you put a price on care? In the case of workers providing essential care services in New Brunswick’s caregiving sector, they have been shortchanged for far too long.
The over 12,000 care workers who provide care and services to the elderly, people living with disabilities, children and women fleeing violence, are employed in one of the most in demand and lowest paying jobs in the province. This essential work falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, especially those that are traditionally oppressed and further marginalized by the system. While the majority of care work is unpaid work in the home, the jobs in New Brunswick’s caregiving sector is undervalued and underpaid.
Care work was suddenly seen as valuable, even essential, during the pandemic. But not valuable enough to be paid on par with jobs done mostly by men of comparable value.
The provincial government also recognized this by granting temporary bonuses. But this crisis was not caused by the pandemic; it will continue and will no doubt worsen in the future if effective measures are not introduced.
Ensuring care workers are paid equitable wages would not only directly benefit the workers, but their employers, the people receiving care and their families, as well as the broader economy. In its upcoming 2022-2023 budget, the provincial government must demonstrate they value care by valuing care workers.
Valuing Women’s Work
Care workers are undervalued and grossly underpaid. This was proven through job evaluations conducted by the Coalition with sector employees and employers over the past two years. They revealed that equitable wages for the jobs reviewed in six care services should reach between $22.44 and $25.91 an hour. The current wages, which range between $13.55 and $16.80, do not reflect the value of work when compared to male-dominated jobs of comparable value.
This inequality is not only felt in workers' wallets, but also in their perceived value. Unfortunately, this provides them very little incentive to stay in the sector.
What we are hearing from the workers themselves is that not only are they worn out, they don't feel valued by society and the government for the essential work they do and they are considering moving to other fields of work. If the government does not act, and soon, we may witness an exodus from the sector. This has the potential to weaken a sector that is already struggling to ensure the minimum hours of care for many of its residents.
Care work is a skilled and rewarding profession. Ask any home support worker or direct caregivers, and they will tell you how much they love the people they care for and their work. Most are willing to bear the personal costs in the short-term but they too, have a breaking point. They cannot live on recognition alone. The value of their work should be reflected in their paycheck.
The Conditions of Work
With an aging population and increasing needs, the care sector faces unprecedented difficulties recruiting and retaining sufficient staff. Low pay and poor working conditions make careers in the care sector unappealing. Promotional campaigns to encourage young people to enter studies and careers in these fields will have little impact unless the wages and working conditions improve.
Who would want to start a career in a demanding field, knowing that they are unlikely to ever be paid fairly?
Without more targeted investment from the Government, the recruitment and retention of care workers will become increasingly difficult, and families will have trouble obtaining the services they need. And the crisis is getting worse. The proportion of our population over 65 is rising, the need for long-term care is growing, private sector job opportunities are increasing--but so is the difficulty to recruit and retain staff.
Who will be left to care for us into our senior years? Is there sufficient care for our family members now?
The Economy of Care
We recognize the government's efforts to improve care services in recent years, such as covering tuition costs for PSWs and HSCs, providing a one-time support for mileage costs and investing $27.4 million dollars for the operational costs of adult residential facilities
If the government wants to capitalize on these investments, it must also continue to increase the wages of the workforce. In past years, this government, and the last, invested in wage increases on an annual basis, albeit unevenly and insufficiently. It also responded to the escalating crisis at the height of the pandemic with temporary relief wage top-ups. This is proof that wages have been stagnant for too long, which now requires even greater investment.
The government must commit itself to making a long-term plan for long-term care to fix long-term problems. A five-year plan to reach pay equity in the entire community care sector must be developed and implemented, starting with significant investments with the 2022-2023 budget.
This crisis is not going to abate any time soon. The longer we wait, the greater the inequities become and the more costly it will be to correct them, in terms of dollars and lives.
It is time to care.
Chair of the NB Coalition for Pay Equity