Coalition renews call for pay equity

With sustained inflation rates over seven per cent and significant jumps in New Brunswick’s minimum wage, workers and activists are calling for the province to address pay equity in women-dominated industries.

“We cannot do this work for a little bit above minimum wage,” Laurie Anderson, a worker in a Woodstock special care home and president of the New Brunswick Community Service Unions, which falls under CUPE, the province’s largest union.

‘It’s too hard and too tiring, and it’s why people leave the sector.”

Anderson works with adults with mental illnesses or disabilities, and says it’s getting harder and harder to hire and retain staff for the “physically demanding and mentally challenging” roles, which involves caring for people who can sometimes have violent behaviours.

“Raising the pay would certainly help,” she said.

According to data from the New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity, caregivers in community residences are paid $18.80 per hour, but a wage that keeps pace with inflation would be nearly $10 higher.

Special care home workers currently make $16.50 per hour, and home support workers are at $17.50, but an equitable wage would be closer to $25, the coalition says.

Johanne Perron, executive director of the coalition for pay equity, acknowledged the provincial government’s 2022-23 budget included increasing wages to match the $2 increase in minimum wage.

Minimum wage in New Brunswick is set to increase again on April 1 to $14.75 per hour.

“But it’s still not progress,” she said, as inflation has outpaced wage increases.

“It’s as if there wasn’t any advancement. They’re seeing an increase in their paycheque, but it’s just keeping up with what they had before.”

A living wage in New Brunswick’s three major cities is more than $20 per hour, according to data published in October 2022 by the Saint John Human Development Council.

The coalition defines pay equity as valuing jobs in woman-dominated sectors the same as male-dominated jobs.

Jobs in the “care sector” have traditionally been undervalued and under-payed, Perron said, to the detriment of both workers and the families who rely on their services.

“We need to think about paying people fairly, based on their responsibilities, working conditions, efforts and skills required,” Perron said.

Mark Taylor, media spokesperson for the province's Women's Equity Branch, said work is being done across government to address pay equity in the public sector, though he didn't offer specifics.

The branch "recognizes the value of work done in women-led sectors," he said, and is meeting with stakeholders, including the pay equity coalition.

Simon Ouellette, media representative for CUPE, said part of the problem is the “patchwork” of dozens of public and private care providers throughout the province.

He estimates there’s about 10,000 care workers across the province, but only a fraction of them- about 500 to 600- are unionized.

High turnover rates are a barrier to organizing, he said, as “a union is only as strong as its members,” adding the “precarious nature” of the sector brings challenges to maintaining labour rights, like vacation, sick time, and other things covered by the Employment Standards Act.

“It will remain precarious, unless there is government intervention,” he said.

Faye Nowlan, vice president of the New Brunswick Community Service Union, has been working in the sector for more than 20 years. She says she hasn’t received a significant raise since 2014.

In 2021, the department of social development spent $12.4 million in wage increases for more than 10,000 workers in the care sector, including home support workers and special care home workers, Rebecca Howland, media representative for the department of social development.

She added there had been “numerous” initiatives to address recruitment of staffers in long-term care, including job fairs and international trips.

But Nowlan says increased wages would be the best bet to retain the sector’s workers, noting the provincial government’s $777 million budgetary surplus at the end of 2022.

Nowlan works at a youth transition home in Miramichi, working with troubled teens who, in some cases, have nowhere else to stay.

“It’s really, really challenging,” she said, “there are a lot of youth with mental health issues from abuse when they were small.”

Many of the youth Nowlan works with go to school where they’re aided by educational assistants, which were a part of the thousands of workers who went on province-wide strike in fall 2021.

Education assistants now make about $12 or $13 more than workers in the youth transition home, and “they well deserve it,” she said, “but we deal with the same type of youth.”

Nowlan says she stays in the sector despite the challenging working conditions, 12-hour shifts and low wages because she feels like she can make a difference.

“There are success cases,” she said, “It gets frustrating, but then it’s like, ‘Oh my god, we got this kid through school, he’s in college now.’”

Marlo Glass, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal