Two years into the pandemic, here’s why Ontario behind on the progress the rest of the country has made

This column by Armine Yalnizyan was originally published by the Toronto Star on Wednesday March 9, 2022. Armine is a Contributing Columnist to Toronto Star Business featured bi-weekly.

Two years ago we were living our last “normal” week before the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. As we enter our third year of living with COVID-19, the hope is that virus’s impact is ebbing, not evolving, and the new worry is that turmoil stemming from Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine could engulf the world.

It’s as good a time as any to take stock of the good, the bad and the ugly of how business as usual has changed during the past two years, and what we can expect next.

The Good

After 50 years of asking, the federal government finally bankrolled a national strategy to deliver affordable and more plentiful high-quality early learning and child care in all jurisdictions of Canada. Well, everywhere but in Ontario, where our government hasn’t come up with a plan on how to use $10.2 billion of Canadian taxpayer dollars to get ’er done. Expect gradually improving women’s labour force participation across the country, making public coffers more flush everywhere but here, where expensive and inadequate child care remains a choke point to recovery.

The minimum wage is now $15 or more in six jurisdictions (Ontario was the last to join British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut). Here, $15 is 48.7 per cent of the average hourly wage, not enough to cover the soaring costs of housing in many parts of the province, but heading in the right direction. As labour shortages accelerate due to population aging, expect a push to increase the minimum wage more, which would reduce inequality, increase affordability and boost the economy from the bottom up. (I suggest the minimum wage be anchored to 60 per cent of the average hourly wage. That would be $18.50 an hour in Ontario.)

The Bad

Despite labour shortages as far as the eye can see, the she-cession still isn’t over. Hundreds of thousands of poorly paid, mostly female-dominated jobs are still missing, mainly in businesses providing hospitality (bars, restaurants, hotels), retail sales and personal services. These jobs may not come back. At last count (January 2022) twice as many women aged 55 to 64 were looking for work than men of the same age compared to pre-pandemic; and three times as many women as men aged 55 to 59 have stopped looking for work entirely. Will they come back? Until they do, expect lower household purchasing power to put a drag on business and economic recovery.

The pace of inflation has outstripped wage growth for the past few months, labour shortages notwithstanding, making affordability top of mind for households and politicians alike. Fasten your seatbelts. The tumult of Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has caused oil prices to spike to levels not seen since 2008. Russia and Ukraine also account for a quarter of the world’s wheat and barley exports and 35 per cent of the world’s potash exports, used to fertilize crops. Expect the world to get very hungry. In Canada, food insecurity will soar, and those hardest hit by the pandemic hit hardest again.

The Ugly

This may seem like small potatoes in contrast to the life and death stories playing out across the world, and not just in Ukraine. But what we do with our relative peace and plenty in Canada matters, and is all the more troubling when we squander the resources and power we do have.

In Ontario, not only will more than $1 billion of the $10.2 billion in federal funding for child care vanish on March 31 if the government doesn’t get its act together soon; the Ford government chose not to spend $5.5 billion of its budget over the first three quarters of the 2021-22 fiscal year, with the biggest single shortfall in health care … during a pandemic. Also in Ontario: vacancies in health care have more than doubled since before the pandemic, while average wages in the health-care sector have actually fallen.

The Ford government is marketing itself as a pro-worker government in time for the June election by introducing legislation that includes the Working for Workers Act, which is actually anti-worker legislation. It denies basic worker protections to gig workers by creating a second tier of labour rights for the people whose employer says they are independent contractors, regardless of what employees say. That ensures these workers are unlikely to be paid minimum wage, get overtime, vacation or severance pay, be covered by occupational health and safety rules, or be able to organize for better.

It’s a cynical move, advanced as platform companies like Uber and DoorDash consistently lose court cases arguing their drivers and couriers are not employees, not only around the world, but in Ontario itself. And it’s squandering a real opportunity to do better, just as we expect a growing swath of workers to fall into this on-demand category of labour.

Why is that likely to happen? Ontario’s Task Force on Women and the Economy included Chen Xia, CEO of Gotcare, as an adviser. Gotcare is an app for home care that boasts it offers care at hourly rates that are “20 to 30 per cent less than traditional home care.” More gig work for women in a sector guaranteed to grow, with fewer labour protections, by policy design, is just ugly. And it’s a terrible insult to the essential, and essentially devalued, women who have been keeping home- and long-term care and health care functioning throughout two long years of a pandemic.

After two years of living with COVID, we’ve had a lot of time to process what kind of lives we want to have, what “freedom” means, and what that freedom might require of us. Expect our decisions in 2022, through budgets, elections and support of others, to make a difference.