Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the federal government’s contribution to the provinces and territories for the essential workers wage boost.
Janitors at long-term care facilities, those restocking food on store shelves, along with other low-wage employees who have made it possible for millions of Canadians to avoid contracting COVID-19 while getting the supplies and services they need, will soon be getting a raise.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government, provinces and territories will spend up to $4 billion to top up the wages of essential workers in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Details are still to be finalized with some provinces about how the program will roll out, but Trudeau says all the premiers agree that front-line, low-wage workers who are risking their health deserve to be earning more for their labour.
“We see across the country people working on the front lines in essential services, in our seniors care centres, in our long-term care, in our health-care systems and elsewhere who are making very low wages while doing extraordinarily important work,” Trudeau said Thursday.
“The bottom line is this: if you’re risking your health to keep this country moving and you’re making minimum wage, you deserve a raise.”
Because of the variants that exist across the country, both in the way COVID-19 is presenting in different provinces and territories and in the way essential services are classified, it will be up to each province to decide which workers count as “essential” and will get a top-up to their salaries. The provinces will also decide how much more these workers will earn.
The federal government will cover three-quarters of the cost of this program, with provincial and territorial governments kicking in the rest.
Canadians are relying on these workers now, more than ever, and all provinces and territories worked collaboratively to come to an agreement on how to better support them, Trudeau said.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s forced restrictions have meant millions of Canadians have come to rely on workers who provide essential services, but the outbreak has also laid bare that many of those who work in jobs now deemed “essential” come from vulnerable populations.
People who work in grocery stores, people who clean nursing homes, people who work in processing plants are often members of marginalized communities: people of colour, newcomers, temporary foreign workers, single mothers, those with limited education and people living in poverty.
Public health officials have ordered Canadians to stay home and self-isolate to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, but these workers have had to keep going to work every day to ensure food supply chains remain intact and health facilities can continue to operate.
When asked whether the pandemic is placing too great a burden on employees who are already marginalized, Trudeau was reflective, saying he believes the virus has revealed that people who are economically and socially vulnerable are “extremely important to the functioning of our society.
“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”
These comments were echoed by the country’s chief science adviser, Mona Nemer, in a conversation with Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, which was streamed online Thursday.
Nemer said she believes the pandemic will likely cause Canadians to rethink current societal structures, such as the reality that those who provide care are among the lowest-paid.
“I hope it will raise many questions that we will ask ourselves and have a national dialogue around our values and around also maybe how technology can help us better care for each other, care for others and use it to stay connected, use it to ensure better health for everyone,” Nemer said.
“I think there are going to be a lot of very interesting take-home messages from this unfortunate situation.”
—With a file from Stephanie Levitz