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Wage boosts for essential workers should last beyond COVID-19 pandemic: union leaders

Coronavirus outbreak: Feds will spend up to $3 billion to top up the wages of essential workers
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government will spend up to three billion to top up the wages of essential workers. He says the provinces and territories will decide how the money gets spent, but it's meant to help people who are risking their health by working during the COVID-19 pandemic at minimum wage.

Union leaders across the country applauded the federal government on Thursday for contributing up to $3 billion to help boost wages for essential workers across the country in the COVID-19 pandemic — but they argue governments should allow those front-line workers to retain that higher pay once the public health crisis has passed.

“Many of these jobs are paid at a rate that is absolutely not commensurate with the value that they give to our community and we see this as a recognition of that,” said CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn.

“We think that this should not be a temporary thing. This should be a permanent measure where enhanced funding is permanently provided.”

READ MORE: Feds giving provinces, territories up to $3B to boost essential workers’ wages

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government has reached cost-sharing agreements with almost all Canada’s provinces and territories for the wage boost for essential workers. The deal will see Ottawa put up three-quarters of the cost, with the provincial governments footing the rest.

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A news release from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) stated the government will provide up to $3 billion to support the wage top-ups.

“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,” Trudeau said during his daily news conference on Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A few provinces already announced the details of their respective wage increases for essential workers, ahead of the prime minister’s confirmation of Ottawa’s support on Thursday.

Quebec announced a $4-per-hour pay hike for workers in private long-term care homes, as well as a $24.28-per-hour salary to attract new workers to fill in as attendants at the facilities. Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have since followed suit with similar programs.

Coronavirus outbreak: Quebec proposes to increase essential workers wages by $400 for 4 months
Coronavirus outbreak: Quebec proposes to increase essential workers wages by $400 for 4 months

Asked whether there’s an expiry date to the cost-sharing agreement, a PMO spokesperson confirmed the deal is related to the pandemic, but noted some provinces who already announced wage top-ups have specified dates until which the increase is effective.

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Ontario, for its part, said its $4-per-hour “pandemic pay” increase would be valid between mid-April and mid-August.

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The $4 is the start of what the permanent wages of these front-line workers should be,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, a national health care union that represents more than 60,000 front-line workers.

“They still have a distance to go, in my opinion … $15, $16 an hour is not what kind of a living wage they should be having.”

Asked whether the province of Ontario is exploring extending that time period or making the wage top-up permanent for some essential employees, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Treasury Board president said the provincial government “recognize[s] that this is a rapidly-evolving and dynamic situation.”

“We will continually monitor and consult on the best approaches to supporting all Ontarians, including frontline workers,” press secretary Sebastian Skamski said in an emailed statement.

“It’s also important to note that this pandemic pay timeline aligns with the federal and provincial declarations of emergency.”

READ MORE: 1 worker dead, 25 COVID-19 cases reported at Maple Lodge Farms poultry plant in Ontario

Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said he hopes the federal government’s wage boost announcement is the start of a larger “transition” that will result in workers providing “critical services” receiving better compensation.

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I think this pandemic has shown us that health-care workers who we count on every day — as well as grocery store workers, delivery drivers, security guards, restaurant workers — all play a vital role in our economy and that they are undervalued and underpaid and something needs to be done about that,” Rebeck said.

I think as we move towards an economic recovery, we need to make this shift and we need to continue it on, both for the recovery in the future.

“We need to do better for these workers who can count on every day.”

Guidelines for wage boost would be helpful, union leaders say

Several executives of large labour groups also told Global News they would have liked to see Ottawa attach some “standards” for who will qualify for the increase and the amount of support they’ll get.

Trudeau said the federal government is leaving it up to the provinces and territories to make those decisions. When asked by a journalist what guidelines the federal government gave the provinces about spending the federal cash, the prime minister’s response suggested no such guidelines were provided.

“Because of the variance across the country, both of the COVID-19 situation and of delivery of essential services including health care, we felt that it was best that provinces move forward in choosing exactly how they can best help the workers who are doing such important work right across the country,” Trudeau said.

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Coronavirus outbreak: COVID-19 pandemic has revealed weaknesses in Canada’s supply chain, Trudeau says
Coronavirus outbreak: COVID-19 pandemic has revealed weaknesses in Canada’s supply chain, Trudeau says

Several union executives acknowledged the provinces are all dealing with different circumstances, but argued that federal guidelines could still be helpful.

“For me, the key piece of this is that the $4-billion wage top-up really has to be for those that need it the most,” said Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, Canada’s biggest private-sector union.

“I really think the money should be spent more on the low-wage earners to ensure that they have a decent standard of living.”

Other executives suggested that “clear parameters” from federal officials might help ensure some “consistency” across the provinces and territories.

I think the intent of this program is to recognize and help those workers out in a financial way.We should do that with some sort of consistency,” Rebeck said.

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“I think workers from one region to the other, if they see that some are included there and not here, that’s not good for anyone and that’s not fair.”

“It would make it much clearer for Canadians to know from coast to coast what group of workers would get that money and more importantly, that they would be treated equally across the country,” said Hussan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour of Congress.

Labour issues extend beyond pay, unions say

Part of the objective in proposing a federal wage top-up was to encourage more essential workers to stay on job, even at the risk of their own lives, and to compensate them for recent orders in some provinces banning them from working in multiple facilities.

As more workers in long-term care homes have fallen ill, many facilities have been struggling to provide basic care for residents. Both Quebec and Ontario, where the problem is most acute, have requested help from the military.

READ MORE: Over 1,000 CAF members sent to Quebec long-term care homes, more to come by mid-May

In addition to the issue of pay, Hahn argued that post-pandemic, the federal government should create standards and give the provinces more money “to provide these services in a way that there is consistency across the country.”

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“This isn’t only about pay. It is about the standard of the care that’s being provided in those settings, ensuring that workers have access to full-time hours,” he said.

“Part of the real problem that has been exposed here, that our union and others have talked about for a long time, is the reality of the casualization of work, that people are forced to stitch together two and three jobs just to make ends meet.

“That’s got to end.”

— With files from The Canadian Press