Whose Work is Essential?

And shouldn’t “essential” mean “well-paid”?

The empty streets, the masks, the death reports — the last couple of months have felt apocalyptic. However, thanks to the labour of what we now call “essential workers,” a worse crisis is being averted.

The fear of an actual apocalypse had made what’s important very clear: healthcare, a livable planet, food, shelter, creative exchange, and each other.

Many of the folks standing between humanity and total disaster are in helping professions: teaching, social work, youth work, childcare, policing, personal support work, nursing, firefighting and paramedic services. Does hazard pay thank these guys enough for all that they’re doing? In a lot of cases, it doesn’t even bring them up to what they should have been making before the pandemic. Heck, for some, it doesn’t even bring them up to a living wage.

Culturally, we communicate who is valued by who is compensated well. So shouldn’t “essential” translate to “well-paid”? It should, but the level of how “essential” a job is has never been the metric used for deciding how labour is compensated. If it was, there wouldn’t be such variability in how publicly-funded helping professions are remunerated within and across sectors.

We often talk about the problem of underfunding to explain why some helping jobs pay more than others. A more appropriate framing would be that there are systemic funding discrepancies. For example, policing is the largest single line item on the City of Toronto’s budget, with the promise of an 11% salary increase over the next few years. Elsewhere, education and health care budgets are slashed, and non-profits have lost funding, been forced to reduce staff teams and to freeze salaries.

These funding discrepancies create salary discrepancies. Generalized across Canada, the median hourly pay for a police officer is $42.24 an hour, a social worker’s is $33.33, a paramedic’s is $33, and a youth worker’s and shelter worker’s are both $21.54. The people looking after your babies are paid on average $18 an hour, and the personal support workers caring for your parents in long term care homes make on average $16.50. The lower wages in this list do not reflect the skill required, the risks involved, and the social value of these jobs.

It’s not difficult to notice that immigrants, people from low-income backgrounds, women and racialized men make up the vast majority of what we now call essential workers, and even more of the workers who are paid the least. In addition, when you look at who is served by the least paid workers, you notice that they are immigrants, children, women who have experienced violence, youth, poor people, and drug users. People without social power; people who are marginalized. For example, places serving homeless people (shelters) are not funded as well as places serving everyone (hospitals). Thus, these pay discrepancies have more to do with who is valued.

Here is a breakdown of comparative wages in Canada, Ontario, and Toronto from Job Bank Canada’s Wage Report.

Over half the police officers in Toronto earn more than a $100 000 a year ($48 an hour). That means they make more than double the salaries of most of the social service workers who serve the same clientele. Shelter and drop-in workers work with folks who interact with police regularly, but without the same protections. They work with folks who have come straight out of jail or mental institutions without any idea about their violent histories. People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done, so it’s usually fine. When it isn’t, the risks and challenges are very high.

If you question the risk of being a worker in a residential setting, let me remind you of the death of Calgary youth worker Deborah Onwu last fall. She was killed by a mentally ill teenager in her care.

Looking at the table, you’ll notice the plummet from the paramedic’s median wage at $33 to social service workers at $21.54. Social service workers (also youth workers, social workers, are often a part of the same scene in which paramedics are involved. They begin the emergency response before paramedics arrive, often reversing overdoses or stemming bleeding wounds without medical support. They help paramedics de-escalate people in crisis, transfer trust, and persuade clients to go to the hospital for care. It’s an essential contribution.

All social workers share similar burdens, but their wages depend on where they work. This is what creates the wide range between the minimum and maximum social worker’s wages ($19 — $46). Higher-paid social work jobs are only in certain sectors, such as schools, hospitals, and city-run programs. In Toronto, a hospital social worker makes $38 an hour or so, while a social worker at a nonprofit-run shelter makes $16-$24 an hour. Youth workers are essentially social workers, but are also paid in the $16 — $24 an hour range, and $7 less in Toronto than they are in Ottawa ($17 at entry level versus $24 in the youth shelter system).

There may be some differences in how much training people have at either end of the salary spectrum, but having a credential doesn’t automatically put you in the over-$30 wage bracket. Whether workers have a 3-year college diploma or a degree, all social work involves case management, crisis intervention, counselling, and/or community engagement. It’s complex, and stressful, not because of the people who need help, but because of the many barriers to getting folks longterm housing, income and mental health care.

You would think the most depressed, chaotically substance-using, suicidal and aggressive people are directed to the workers who are paid the most. They’ve got the Master’s degrees and the better resources, right? Well, residential workers try to get their clients to hospital or to a psychiatrist. First, they do the initial suicide assessment and intervention. When highly-paid psychiatrists and social workers discharge a client after a short assessment, it is residential workers that try to come up with solutions for the kid who repeatedly bangs his own head against the concrete wall. They do the best they can while they try to get their client to a mental health professional. Unfortunately, often residential settings can’t keep psychiatrists because so many of them are too scared of the clientele. Residential workers spend 12 hours a day with these clientele, who are indeed sometimes scary.

This isn’t a piece about how salty I am that my personal income hasn’t been what I think it should be. But having coordinated and taught in youth training programs fro homeless youth for over a decade, I’ve often resented not making at least as much a teacher, who are still underpaid. Teachers’ starting salaries are about $40 000 and can top out at over $90 000. For social workers, it’s rare to start a job at $40 000, then stay in it for 30 years until you retire at $90 000 with a pension. My (gross) income as a health promoter/community educator/project manager has hovered around $50 000 this whole time.

And this is far from the worst thing that can can happen in social services. A newcomer friend of mine worked full-time volunteer for a settlement organization for a year, without even getting a job out of it. The violence and racism towards personal support workers was found to “out of control” in a 2008 research study.

There are multiple factors contributing to the wide salary ranges reported on Job Bank Canada. One factor is city funding structures. In Toronto, there are city-run shelters and community programs, and city-funded shelters and programs. City-run shelter workers are paid in the area of $58 500 a year; many non-profit shelter workers are paid around $35 360 a year. For experienced health promoters and community developers, we’re talking $50 000 a year versus $90 000 gross. Folks doing harm reduction work for the City of Toronto are paid around $70 000, while harm reduction workers elsewhere are making $50 000. Same work, same funding source, same clientele - different salary. The reasons for this are too many for one article, but a big one is the strength of the city’s union.

Yay for the union, and the unions elsewhere that have bargained for better wages. To be clear, I don’t want anyone to be making less. Even doctors’ $200 000 a year doesn’t seem that high when you consider their exorbitant student loans, long hours, and the risks they take on.

I just think Canadians have no idea what workers are contributing and enduring for $15-$25 an hour. Also, I think most people wouldn’t want these massive discrepancies in pay between workers doing the same work.

I think this pandemic can make us truly realize the risk and value of residential work, childcare, youth work, care for the elderly and folks with disabilities, and services for immigrants.

The truth is that helping workers were always standing between humanity and disaster. If the public moved beyond calling us “heroes” and started advocating for our wages to reflect their value, we might start to see a change.

Audrey is an educator, counsellor, and curriculum developer running her own business in Toronto. She writes about social services, mostly. audreybatterham.com.

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