Alberta has requested less than 10 per cent of the maximum amount the province could have asked for under Ottawa’s program for topping up the wages of low-income essential workers, according to a federal source.
The $30-million Alberta sought (and has now received) from Ottawa is significantly less than the province could have requested – a total of about $347-million. It stands in contrast with the much larger amounts other provinces and territories have asked for under the federal COVID-19 framework meant to boost the wages of low-income workers, many of them tasked with difficult, public-facing jobs.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
There is a cost-sharing requirement to the program: The provinces must contribute money to get the funding from Ottawa – but only after a certain threshold. The $30-million Alberta was given in September is a part of the program where there is no cost-sharing obligation. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has said Alberta could receive up to $46-million from the federal government’s program without the cost-sharing requirement kicking in.
“We want to focus it where it is most needed,” Mr. Kenney said on May 8, adding that Alberta would use the federal dollars to boost the wages of workers in long-term and other congregate care homes, where staff retention is an issue.
The day before Mr. Kenney made his remarks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced federal-provincial agreements to boost wages for essential workers. He said Ottawa would contribute up to $3-billion, and the provinces and territories collectively would be asked to contribute $1-billion. “If you are risking your health to keep this country moving and you’re making minimum wage, you deserve a raise,” Mr. Trudeau said.
The program has now boosted the wages of food bank workers, long-term care staff, bus drivers and a multitude of others employed in essential jobs across Canada.
Each province or territory was given the task of determining which workers would be eligible for federal-provincial support, and how much they would receive. Manitoba, for instance, gave $120-million in wage top-up for essential public- and private-sector workers – from security guards to health care aides – in the summer. British Columbia said this month that $251-million in temporary pandemic pay has already been provided to about 165,000 workers, in a continuing process. Ontario has used about $1.1-billion in federal dollars to give a long list of workers, from housekeeping staff in hospitals to chaplains who work in correctional facilities, a $4 an hour wage top-up for work performed between April and August.
Alberta’s initiatives have been far more limited than what has been rolled out in other provinces. A spokeswoman for the province said government has used $12-million of the federal dollars to top up the wages of health care aides in non-profit and private partner care facilities. The province has also contributed to funding top-ups in those facilities, said Adrienne South, press secretary to Jason Copping, Alberta’s Minister of Labour and Immigration.
More news is on the horizon. “Alberta has already secured tens of millions of additional dollars from the federal government that will be distributed to frontline workers in the weeks to come,” she said last week.
However, Ms. South said she did not have any further details about why Alberta didn’t request more federal dollars under the program, or when exactly the province will move forward with more wage top-ups for essential workers.
Christina Gray, labour and immigration critic for Alberta’s NDP opposition, said other provinces have done the work to get the top-up money out to a broad array of workers, but the Alberta government has left more than $300-million in federal funding on the table. She said that money could have also acted as a boon for the province’s struggling economy.
“We’re now in our second lockdown, and our workers still haven’t seen the wage top-ups,” Ms. Gray said.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said every other province has delivered either all or most of the available federal money to front-line workers, adding, “Alberta is a gross outlier in this regard.”
Under the program’s structure, provinces and territories were able to request an amount from Ottawa for their share of the $3-billion, up to a maximum allocation – mostly based on population. In May, the Prime Minister’s Office said “all provinces and territories have confirmed, or are in the process of confirming, plans to cost-share wage top-ups for their essential workers.”
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