Fair wages for the frontlines

Opinions

We need to have a conversation about fair minimum wages and inclusive social security programs, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo sourced via Pixabay

I’m sure we all remember that pivotal weekend in mid-March, when the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly exploded — swallowing up our familiar daily routines and whatever meager sense of normalcy we once had along with it. 

On Thursday evening that week, I talked to my Mom on the phone — as a professor of Public Health, she thought the rampant hoarding of food and household supplies was a big over-reaction. I travelled to Vancouver to spend the weekend with my partner to celebrate his birthday on Friday, without a second thought about whether or not this travel was ‘essential’. By Saturday, we noticed significantly fewer people on the city buses, and a strange new sense of apprehension and anxiety in public spaces.

By the time the weekend was over, UVic announced that in-person instruction was cancelled for the remainder of the semester, and I convinced my partner to come back to Victoria with me out of fear that the ferries would shut down and we’d be stranded on opposite sides of the water.  

Around the same time, the local grocery store where I work part-time during the school year had become significantly busier than usual. With my classes now moved online and my summer job contract cancelled on very short notice, I was happy to pick up some extra shifts when my manager asked.

Suddenly, my 12 hours a week turned into 20, then 25, then 35. Before I knew it, I was working five days a week at the grocery store while juggling the confusion of last-minute online classes and scrambling to gather some sort of coherent thoughts for my rapidly-encroaching final papers. 

Even while working full-time, I was earning wages that kept me below the BC Provincial Poverty Line.

Shortly after that, physical distancing, self-isolation, and virtual socializing became the new normal —  that is, for those of us who weren’t still required to go to work.

At first I was happy to be serving the needs of our community, and grateful for the small sense of purpose and bit of income that I was getting by working, but those feelings became increasingly complicated as the pandemic wore on. 

While the federal government was quick to announce the $2000 per month Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to help those who had lost their jobs due to COVID-19, far too many people, including myself, were excluded from this benefit and left scrambling to hold their lives together. As an essential service worker, I was still employed and ineligible for CERB. However, even while working full-time, I was only earning $1600 per month— $400 below what I could have been getting from the government if I was unemployed.

Later on, in mid-April, Justin Trudeau made an announcement about expanding the CERB eligibility and offering a benefit for students (CESB). While both still excluded folks in my position, Trudeau added that there would be news coming the following week about a wage top-up for low-income essential workers. Relieved, I kept going to work, and I waited. But a week passed, then two weeks, then a month, and still nothing had materialized. 

Over six weeks later, when the announcement finally came, the wage top-up was only offered to healthcare and social service workers. It still excluded so many people who had been working on the frontlines throughout the pandemic, whether in grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, or doing deliveries, to name just a few.

Essential services like these are too often overlooked and under-valued, not to mention grossly under-paid. Even while working full-time, I was earning wages that kept me below the BC Provincial Poverty Line. However, by choosing to leave my job, I would’ve immediately disqualified myself from any of the government benefits being offered, and it was a tough time to find other work. 

Who are exclusive government benefits, such as CERB, designed to help during times of crisis, and who is intentionally left out? Why are so many people working full-time for wages that they can’t survive on?

It was shocking to me that the federal government was knowingly trapping countless people into high-risk, low-paying work, especially at a time when our jobs are essential to the functioning of our society.

The gap that I found myself in as a low-income essential worker highlights only one of many groups that were missed by the COVID-19 emergency benefits. For example, anyone who was already unemployed was excluded from the CERB, and all international students were excluded from the CESB. I believe that the short-comings of the COVID-19 emergency benefits serve as a very compelling case for governments to seriously consider implementing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) — not only in the context of the pandemic, but as a long-term approach to ensuring social security. 

To date, no government benefits have been offered to compensate low-income essential service workers like myself. Many of us are still going to work every day, and earning less than we could be by staying home. While this experience was new for me, I recognize that many folks, including many women and people of colour, rely on minimum wage jobs. My intention in sharing this story is to contribute my own experience to a much-needed conversation about fair minimum wages, and inclusive social security programs. 

Who are exclusive government benefits, such as CERB, designed to help during times of crisis, and who is intentionally left out? Why are so many people working full-time for wages that they can’t survive on?

A UBI would be one of the only fair and truly inclusive ways to ensure that everyone can achieve a safe, healthy, and comfortable life, regardless of their capacity to work, or other personal circumstances. Ultimately, the highly disruptive, revealing moment of the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to exacerbate and shed light upon many deep-rooted, systemic injustices that were already rampant in our society — let’s seize this opportunity to catalyze a positive transformation.