What football tells us about the future of workers

This column by Armine Yalnizyan was originally published by the Toronto Star on Wednesday December 29, 2021. Armine is a Contributing Columnist to Toronto Star Business featured bi-weekly.

This look-ahead business column is brought to you by an observation about football.

As we inch toward the 56th Super Bowl on Feb. 13, 2022, both the commentary and the ads during games are changing.

Ads usually gear up as the season approaches the playoffs, and this year plays into a bigger economic story: labour shortages.

By week 15, an ad was on rotation urging young people to join a union, to learn a trade, work more safely, earn higher wages and enjoy secure benefits.

When’s the last time you saw an ad for the benefits of joining a union, targeting young people, during a football game?

It was paid for by Local 93 of the Carpenters’ Union of Canada, just down the road from where I live in Ottawa.

A few minutes after the ad aired, a game commentator was lauding a certain player’s dogged resolve, calling him “a blue-collar player, working hard.”

Nobody blinks when you call a football player blue-collar, even though the average NFL player makes more than a million dollars a year.

But the reference to the value of hard and humble work echoes the rediscovery of the value of workers, triggered by both the pandemic and demographics.

Sometimes that rediscovery comes from the most unlikely of quarters.

Conservative strategists have been among the first to seize the meaning of persistent labour shortages and population aging, though they largely ignore the women in it.

Gig work is mainly treated as synonymous with Uber drivers; and the crisis in the provision of health care or eldercare and child care is invisible in this read of the shifting landscape.

After the Conservative Party of Canada surprised many with the rhetoric of their pro-worker platform during the federal election, the momentum has been building with the PC government in Ontario.

In October, the provincial government tabled legislation to reform labour laws through an omnibus bill called the Working for Workers Act (which doesn’t actually do much that’s different for workers, apart from noting the need for pee breaks, and a worker’s right to disconnect electronically after-hours from their employer … if you’re not afraid to lose your job).

It’s great branding, and that may be enough for some voters. But when the bill passed in December, paid sick days were no closer for the majority of workers, 22 months into a global pandemic, leaving women to pick up the pieces.

Who’s actually doing the work for workers?

In November, the province also announced it will raise the minimum wage to $15 this January. This is a reversal of an earlier decision to abandon a scheduled increase to $15 an hour in January 2019.

You decide if that works for workers.

And in December, it tabled a long-overdue report on workforce recovery, which disappointingly proposes creating a new set of entitlements for gig workers, who would continue to be classified as workers and not employees, even as platforms like Uber and Lyft continue losing such cases around the world.

By creating a second-class tier of labour rights, the government avoids dealing with the defining issue — misclassification of workers — which denies gig workers access to basic employment standards and protections like jobless benefits.

You may also have noticed a conspicuous silence regarding the biggest and fastest escalating story: labour shortages involving women.

While many sectors are struggling with unfilled job vacancies, health care topped the list, with more than 118,000 vacant positions in the third quarter of 2021.

Compared to the same quarter in 2019, hospitals saw their unfilled vacancies balloon by 80 per cent, and by 70 per cent in long-term-care facilities.

It’s true, sectors like retail and hospitality have seen even more rapid growth in vacancies of late; but these sectors are trying to recoup some of the more than half a million jobs shed since the pandemic hit.

In contrast, the workforce in health care and long-term care keeps growing: new vacancies are rising on top of the addition of 126,000 new payroll jobs in this sector over the past two years.

There’s simply not enough people to deal with the twin forces of burnout and growing need.

Women account for 91 per cent of Canada’s 440,000 nurses, and 90 per cent of long-term-care workers. (There are more than half a million people on payrolls in nursing and residential care.)

That doesn’t include unpaid care, which relies on almost 8 million people. Women provide more than two-thirds of the unpaid hours of care.

Add to the mix the need to attract and retain more qualified workers in early learning and child care to serve the 186,500 new spaces that will be added according to the new federal-provincial early learning and child-care deals, signed in every province but Ontario.

Ottawa, we have a problem.

The Care Economy is huge and growing. We all rely on it at different points in our lives. There is a labour crisis in this sector, and it is a gendered crisis. And nobody’s talking about it.

We’ve been hearing about these shortages, on and off, since the 1990s, and still don’t have a national strategy for human resources in health care. The closest thing we’ve come up with is temporary foreign workers, as I wrote in my last column for the Star.

That’s not good enough.

So don’t be surprised if you hear more commentators and ads and politicians talk about workers as if they’ve discovered a brand-new football play. You know what would be a new play? Working with the feminine side of the team.

Enjoy the holiday season. Enjoy the games. And for those of you trying to change this most important game, for the future of workers: Play hard. Play to win.