Ontario's 'eye-popping' shift to low-wage work
“You feel like you’re a dime a dozen,” says single mom Jodi Dean, echoing others whose precarious work lives are reviewed in a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
June 15, 2015
By Sara Mojtehedzadeh
It’s one of the most excruciating decisions single mom Jodi Dean has ever made: choosing between the unpredictable, $13-an-hour job her family relied on, and taking care of her chronically ill daughter.
“It (made) me physically ill with the stress,” Dean said. “I needed that job to provide for my children.”
Welcome to the new normal for families across the province: low salaries, erratic schedules, dwindling hours, unpaid leave and constant stress.
Ontario’s low-wage work force has skyrocketed by 94 percent over the past two decades, compared with just 30 percent growth in total employment, according to a new report.
In one of the few province-wide studies of precarious employment, the research details an “eye-popping” shift toward poorly paid, non-unionized work across Ontario.
It shows that 40 percent of low-wage employees are saddled with unpredictable shifts, and the overwhelming majority do not get paid when they need time off.
That reality, the report argues, calls for sweeping changes to the province’s employment and labour laws, whose many loopholes have been detailed by the Star and are currently the subject of government review.
“Clearly, people need more predictability both in their schedules and in their incomes,” added Sheila Block, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of the study.
The research compiled by the left-leaning think tank shows that the share of Ontario workers labouring for the minimum wage is now five times higher than in 1997. It rose from less than 3 per cent of all employees to about 12 per cent in 2014.
The share of low-paid work has also ballooned: almost a third of all employees in the province are now making within $4 of the minimum wage, compared with less than 20 per cent of the workforce in 1997.
And while more than half of all minimum-wage workers are still young people, most of those making less than $15 an hour are 25 or older.
“Those low-wage workers are the ones trying to support their families,” Block said.
For that growing population, erratic scheduling is now a deeply entrenched feature of daily life, according to the study, which drew on Statistics Canada data and represents one of the few attempts to quantify the scale of unpredictable scheduling in Ontario.
It found that 63 per cent of people making minimum wage, or $11 an hour, experienced erratic hours from week to week. Some 42 per cent of those making less than $15 an hour also had unpredictable shifts.
“That really increases your economic uncertainty,” said Block. “It has a very large cumulative impact both on people’s income and their ability to deal with the day-to-day.”
Jodi Dean spent three years in low-wage contract work at a small Hamilton-based marketing firm, single-handedly supporting her three children.
That alone was hard enough on $13 an hour and around 25 hours of work a week. But Dean’s youngest daughter also suffers from a genetic bone disease and epilepsy.
With no medical benefits and no paid emergency leave, taking care of her little girl was near-impossible. Dean says her boss never actually fired her, just stopped giving her hours after she started taking unpaid time off to support her daughter.
“You feel like you’re a dime a dozen. Easily replaced,” said Dean, a member of the Speak Now Hamilton Speakers Bureau, a collective of individuals who share their stories of poverty.
Ontario’s outdated Employment Standards Act does not give workers the right to paid emergency leave. It also excludes more than a million employees who work for small companies from the right to a single unpaid sick day.
Low-wage workers disproportionately bear the brunt of those loopholes, the latest CCPA report shows. While more than half of those making over $15 an hour get paid when they miss work, just 16.8 percent of minimum wage workers do.
The Act is also almost completely silent on the matter of fair scheduling - despite the growing proportion of workers who are saddled with erratic shifts.
Meanwhile, only a small fraction of workplaces in low-wage, fast-growing industries such as food services are unionized. Visible minorities, new Canadians and those employed by small firms are also significantly less likely to be unionized than others in the province, the report shows.
“The government really has to look at how (to) increase access to union membership for low-wage precarious workers,” Block said. “Having a trade union right in your workplace is really a very effective way to ensure that your rights are enforced.”
Public consultations on reforming the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act begin on Tuesday, and final recommendations to the government are expected in August 2016.
For Dean, who is worried she won’t be able to find an employer to accommodate her situation as medical bills mount, change is the chance to be treated like something more than a number.
“We will give our all. But support from the employer makes us better workers when we’re there. It would have made a huge difference to me.”
BY THE NUMBERS
50.5: Percentage of Ontario employees working less than 40 hours a week
29.4: Percentage of Ontario workers who are low-wage
6.7: Percentage of employees unionized in private-sector businesses with fewer than 20 people
23.7: Percentage of employees unionized in workplaces with 500 or more people