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Pandemic shines a light on systemic inequities

The pandemic has brought with it hardships not seen in the lifetimes of most of us around today. The loss of life and the health impacts top the list.

We’re also dealing with a number of social issues stemming from the isolation and large changes in our usual routines. And, of course, there has been a huge economic cost.

On that last point, however, the high-level numbers show the gap between rich and poor has actually decreased through the pandemic, with the lowest-income households seeing the largest increase in disposable income – Statistics Canada say that gain was 37 per cent in the first three months of 2020, for example.

Overall, disposable income increased for all groups in the country.

Almost all of that is due to transfers and other government supports, which came at the cost of unprecedented deficits.

Of course, the gains are at the macro level – the pandemic and lockdowns hit some individuals harder than others. The youngest and lowest-income earners in the volatile hospitality and service sectors were the first to lose their jobs, and that part of the economy has yet to recover. However, government assistance programs not only filled in the gaps for many of these workers, in some cases providing net gains to household income.

Concerns about the massive deficit – by some estimates more than $380 billion by the end of 2020 – were raised fairly early on in some quarters, but such matters will really accelerate in earnest once the crisis has passed, or reached a state where we can feel like it’s passed. For now, we do know that the economic impact would have been far worse for many Canadians without supports, with Statistics Canada estimating that overall household disposable income would have fallen by 3.6 per cent by the middle of last year had there been no intervention.

We can expect a number of changes to come from our pandemic experience – there have already been shifts in working remotely and even in where we live – and we can certainly hope society will be more mindful of the precariousness of the economy and, specifically, employment.

We’ve already seen a shift towards more precarious work, but the pandemic has really illustrated the risks. While professional jobs are at risk, as always is the lower end of the pay scale where people are hurt the most.

Very much indicative of the problem is the increase in the number of workers earning minimum wage.

Not only do these jobs pay poorly – often not enough to cover basic living expenses – those in them are some of the most exploited and vulnerable workers. There are few, if any benefits. No sick days (another hot-button item just now) or leave provisions.  A lack of full-time or even steady hours.

Not only are a growing number of jobs paying less, full-time work is harder to come by. More Ontarians are left to scramble for multiple part-time and contract jobs, none of which provide security. A bigger share of employees in Ontario work less than 40 hours a week today than was the case some two decades ago.

The age of workers receiving minimum wage has increased over the last couple of decades. This dispels the myth that minimum wage earners are teenagers who are working for the latest smartphone or other non-necessity. In reality, 66 per cent of minimum wage workers are older than 20 and only 34 per cent are teens. In other words, two out of every three wage earners are adults trying to make ends meet on a minimum wage that keeps a full-time, full-year worker below the poverty line.

Employment growth in trade (retail and wholesale), business services (which includes temporary agencies, cleaning, and security services), and accommodation and food services outpaced overall Ontario employment growth. All of these industries have wages that are far below the median for all workers. Not surprisingly, they were among the hardest hit during the pandemic.

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