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Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce steps to the podium before speaking to members of the media at the Queen's Park Legislature in Toronto on Aug. 25, 2023.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario is boosting the minimum wage of early childhood educators in most licensed child-care centres to $23.86 an hour next year – up from a planned increase to $20 – in a bid to ease shortages that advocates say are hampering growth of the national $10-a-day program.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce released his child-care work force strategy Thursday, including the wage floor increase that the government says will see Ontario’s starting wages for ECEs go from one of the lowest in Canada to one of the highest.

It will help create wage parity with early childhood educators working in kindergarten classrooms, he said.

“We have a ton of workers, who in a world of choices, you could work in a school making 15, 18, 20 per cent more, often people will pursue those options and we’re seeing a bit of a cannibalization of our ECEs from our child-care centres into our kindergarten programs,” Lecce said in an interview.

“So this will help remove the competitive disadvantage and support our operators, support our child-care sectors and help the government keep cutting fees and keep increasing spaces so that we can really make this as universal as possible.”

Ministry officials have warned the province could be short 8,500 ECEs by 2026, the year Ontario hopes to have created 86,000 new spaces under the national child-care system.

Fees have already been cut by 50 per cent for families with children in the 92 per cent of licensed centres and home daycares that opted in to the program, and they are set to be further lowered to an average of $10 a day by 2025.

But advocates have said the ECE shortages are hampering the growth of the sector, with many centres forced to close rooms due to a lack of staff, let alone being able to expand. They have variously called for wage floors of $25, $30, or up to $40 an hour.

Alana Powell, executive director of the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Ontario, said the announcement will go a long way toward giving registered ECEs opportunities to stay in the sector and see growth.

“The wage enhancements to the wage floor that the ministry announced today aren’t perfect,” she said.

“It’s not quite far enough and it’s still inequitable, but it will make a really big impact for a lot of RECEs in Ontario, and so I think that that’s something that the community can really celebrate.”

There is more work to do, Powell said, as advocates had also called for a wage grid allowing for a salary progression, along with benefits and pensions, and a minimum wage for non-ECE staff, who are about 40 per cent of the workers in licensed child care.

“This deals specifically with ECEs because that’s part of the federal agreement,” Lecce said.

Government officials said that inflationary increases to funding for centres participating in the program can be used for wage increases for those staff.

Child-care centres have traditionally relied on parent fees to largely fund operations, including staff wages, but under the $10-a-day program they cannot raise fees, and had asked the province to fund raises for ECEs to attract and retain them.

The YMCA told the provincial government during work force consultations that due to staff shortages, none of its child-care locations provincewide operate at full licenced capacity. It would need nearly 3,000 more staff to do that, and almost 3,500 to expand by 20 per cent.

Jamison Steeve, chief strategy officer for the YMCA of Greater Toronto, said it’s a positive announcement for the sector, though the YMCA still has to work out details of how it will affect wages and staff recruitment and retention at their organization, with an entry rate of $24 an hour and a top rate of over $29 an hour.

“I’m generally pleased with the direction they’re taking,” he said.

“I’m not sure it’s going to solve all of the issues that we face, either as a sector or as a provider, but it’s a good ... first step and we'll have to see where it goes from here.”

Part of the agreement Ontario signed with the federal government in joining the national program was setting a wage floor of $18 an hour in 2022 and increasing it by $1 a year up to $25.

Under Lecce’s new strategy, the floor will rise to $23.86 an hour next year and continue to rise by $1 an hour each year, up to $25.86 in 2026.

The wage ceiling is also set to rise.

Previously, ECEs who were already being paid more than the wage floor but less than $25 an hour qualified to get the $1-per-hour annual increase. Now, those making $26 an hour or less next year will qualify for the boost, with that ceiling rising to $27 an hour in 2025 and $28 an hour in 2026.

As well, ECE supervisors will qualify for the enhancement next year if they earn less than $29 per hour, rising to $30 an hour in 2025, and $31 per hour in 2026.

The work force strategy also includes $18.5 million per year to establish a dedicated professional development day, and doubling funding – from $2 million a year to $4 million – for a program that helps non-ECE child-care staff get an ECE diploma by paying their tuition and other costs.

As well, the government plans to launch a promotional campaign to “raise awareness about the ECE profession, the value and impact of their work, and help attract talented individuals from across Canada.”

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