Nova Scotia’s early childhood educators (ECEs) are renewing their annual call for equal pay across the sector, where the wage gap remains stark between those working in non-profit centres and those in the province’s pre-primary system.
According to CUPE 4745 president Margot Nickerson, the hourly wage difference between Level 3 ECEs — a classification requiring a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education — can be $5 or more, depending on the place of work.
Nickerson’s local union represents six childcare centres in the Halifax Regional Municipality.
“Both groups have exactly the same classification levels, are regulated by the Department of Education and do the same work,” said Nickerson.
“The public is being led to believe that early childhood educators working in public schools are educating children, and those of us working in centres are merely caring for children.”
On Thursday, Nickerson joined representatives from CUPE Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia NDP in launching an “economic security” campaign calling on Education Minister Zach Churchill to commit to a province-wide salary scale for ECEs, along with improved — and guaranteed — benefit and pension packages for all.
In an emailed statement, an Education Department spokesperson said Nova Scotia recognizes and values the work of ECEs, and enacted a mandatory wage floor that must be met in order to receive provincial funding. It has also supported training to help people upgrade their skills to increase wages, and funded more spaces at the Nova Scotia Community to increase public interest in pursuing the career.
While the emailed statement did not address calls for equal pay, Nickerson said Churchill has acknowledged ECEs’ campaigns for equal compensation in the past.
Over the last two years, a group of eight people representing the sector has been making recommendations to his department, some of which were posted on the government’s website.
Discussions on sector-wide pensions in particular, however, were stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They say they had the intention to start actually realizing some of those things, wages, pensions, benefits, anyway COVID put a stop to everything,” Nickerson explained.
According to the Education Department, at least $26 million is invested annually in supporting childcare business owners, allowing them to increase wages and better attract and retain qualified ECEs. The department has said that funding has helped stabilize the sector and increase ECE wages from an average of $12 per hour to $18 per hour.
Despite those efforts, since the rollout of the province’s universal pre-primary program began in 2017, unions say they’ve seen an exodus of qualified ECEs from non-profit centres to public schools, leading to staffing shortages, high stress, poor morale and compromised programming in some of the centres.
Those mental health impacts have also been documented by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
“As a Level 3 ECE I make $19 an hour, but in pre-primary, people with the same level and education make more than I do,” said Daphnee Hahn, an ECE at the St. Joseph’s Children’s Centre in Halifax. Hahn told reporters she has no pension and pays a high premium for her health benefits.
“Many of us will end up in poverty. I want equal pay for equal work.”
Nova Scotia’s decision to implement universal educational programming for four-year-olds has been applauded by ECEs and opposition politicians alike.
The department achieved its goal of offering the service in all 253 communities with elementary schools in October 2020.
Claudia Chender, NS NDP education critic, said funding equal pay for all ECEs would help reduce “structural inequalities” in Nova Scotia, given that the majority of ECEs are women. She said if the government wanted to, it could implement equal pay for all ECEs “tomorrow.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 5:51 p.m. AST on Jan. 28, 2020, to include a new statement from the Education Department.