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Sunshine list does its job of highlighting disparities

There’s nothing like the annual sunshine list of those public sector employees making more than $100,000 a year to get the blood boiling. Ontarians are rightly upset at the lack of fiscal oversight that sees the list grow in leaps and bounds each year.

Ticking off Ontarians was precisely the intent of the Harris government, which made reporting such salaries mandatory beginning in 1996. The idea was to show the public how many government employees were pulling in large dollars, even as their unions cried poor in the face of the Conservatives’ fiscal policies.

If people were incensed by the 4,319 names on that first list, what are they to make of the 205,607 who made north of $100,000 in 2020? This list has grown precipitously over the years – the number of people grew by 23 per cent compared to 2019 – that fact not dampened by talk of inflation over the last 25 years.

There are nine employees on the sunshine list in Woolwich and six in Wellesley. At the regional level, 416 people made the list, while the Waterloo Regional Police added another 672 names.

Inclusion on the list puts those government employees in the top five per cent of all earners in the province.

Once seen as a place where job security came with lower wages, public service now means higher-than-average pay, benefits and working conditions.

The average wage for Ontarians in 2020 was about $55,000, just over half of what it takes to make the sunshine list. And that’s without factoring in the hit to many paycheques due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic downturn and layoffs had a much bigger impact on the private sector, disproportionately burdening those with the most precarious work, particularly in the hospitality industry.

For years, wages, stagnant or even shrinking for some in the private sector, have increased only in name, moving much more slowly than in the public sector. That contrast is likely to be even more stark given the vicissitudes of the pandemic.

The discrepancy between government workers and those in the private sector is likely to rise. Average industry wages are expected to increase in marginally this year, nothing like the pace expected in the public sector.

Yet, as we’ve seen in this area, government employees are receiving deals above the private sector average. With no bottom line – politicians seem to have few qualms about dipping deeper on their repeated trips to the well – governments simply pass the increases along to a public forced to pay taxes, a far cry from the situation faced in the private sector.

The argument that the threshold for reporting salaries should be adjusted for inflation makes sense only to those who would seek to hide runaway grown in public sector salaries. It’s no overstatement to say $100,000 is still a significant amount of money, far more than most Ontarians make. Saying someone has a six-figure salary has meant something for decades. Though inflation has eroded the buying power, it’s still enough to put the recipient in a category that excludes 95 per cent of the public.

Few would begrudge civil servants a decent wage, but when those supported by public money begin making more than those paying the freight, friction is bound to follow – a boiling point may be reached as the gap widens and the public becomes more mindful of the inequalities, systemic and otherwise, that have been creeping back into the economy at a quickened pace.

The pandemic has put inequities into greater relief, and revealed the fragility of the economy generally and wage income more specifically, particularly the contrast between private and public sectors.

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