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The crisis in the care economy shows no sign of letting up

Bumpy Ride #6: Workers in the care economy have been battered over the past two years, and that crisis shows no signs of slowing.

November 25, 2022

3-minute read

This is part six of our Fall 2022 Bumpy Ride labour market series update. It presents up-to-date information on women’s economic security, unpacking national-level statistics and identifying emerging economic trends that impact women’s economic standing.

Quick takeaway

Between the beginning of 2021 to June 2022, many groups of care workers experienced real wage cuts wages including registered nurses (-6.3 per cent), social and community service workers (-5.5 per cent) and nurse aides and orderlies (-3.3 per cent).

Care workers’ earnings falling behind

Over two million women work in the health care and social assistance sector and another million in education. There has been modest employment growth in these fields since before the pandemic, up 3.7 per cent and 3.5 per cent, respectively, but these new positions have barely made a dent on skyrocketing demand for care and support.

Record-high vacancies, notably in health care, persist as the rate of retirement in the sector edges ever-higher. In August, there were 152,000 vacant positions in health care and social assistance, up 6.4 per cent (+9,100) from July and up 19.4 per cent (+24,800) from August 2021. Hospitals and community-based care providers are buckling under the strain of an acute labour shortage, leaving them unable to adequately staff care services even as new COVID-19 cases mount.

Different governments are proposing solutions to the care crisis, but none have taken decisive action to tackle wages and working conditions of care workers, preferring to tinker ineffectively around the edges. Care sector wages have increased only modestly since 2019 even after taking pandemic wage top-ups for selected groups into account. It is important to remember how very low the starting wages were before the pandemic. In 2019, the average offered hourly wage for nurse aides and orderlies was $18.40 and even less for early childhood educators ($17.20).

The graph above looks at more recent wage gains from the beginning of 2021 to June 2022. We see an increase of 3.6 per cent among social and community service workers, 5.3 per cent among nurse aides, and just a meagre 2.8 per cent among registered nurses – many subject to legislated wage constraint. After taking inflation into account, these essential workers all experienced real income losses over these 18 months.

Care workers across the country are fighting for recognition, fair wages and improved working conditions, but facing entrenched resistance from employers and governments. The Ontario government in an unprecedented move introduced legislation to strip largely female educational workers of their democratic right to free and fair collective bargaining, unilaterally imposing a contract that would have locked in real wage losses for years. This law was not only a direct attack on labour rights but gender rights too.

After massive outcry and pushback from Canada’s labour movement, the government announced it would repeal Bill 28 and return to the bargaining table. The outcome for workers is still uncertain. Addressing the low wages and poor working conditions of care workers is central to any plausible or just strategy for addressing Canada’s care deficit and reducing the penalty attached to occupational segregation for women and other marginalized groups. There is a fight ahead to realize these goals.

About this update

Logo of Beyond Recovery: Toward a gender-just economy project

This Bumpy Ride Update series is part of a larger project, Beyond Recovery, which is working to support and advance a gender-just recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The project’s goals are to document and analyze women’s experiences, with a particular focus on those of marginalized women in hard-hit sectors, and to provide evidence-based policy proposals to ensure those who are most impacted in this pandemic are front and centre in Canada’s recovery. The Fall 2022 update draws on the annual and monthly Labour Force Survey and other related sources of information, highlighting differences between women and men as well as between different groups of women. Considering differences in the experiences of women with intersecting identities is crucial to understanding the impact of the pandemic and efforts to craft a fair and inclusive recovery, attentive to the experiences and struggles of marginalized and under-represented groups.

See the first Labour Market Update, published in May: Katherine Scott, A Bumpy Ride: Tracking women’s economic recovery amid the pandemic. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, May 31, 2022.

This project has been funded in part by Women and Gender Equality Canada.

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