A new research report shows that the Ford government’s policies have led to real dollar wage cuts for the predominantly female workforce in the broader public sector, negatively impacting Ontario’s gender pay gap.

The report by CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU-CUPE) says that while average wage growth (27 per cent) across all industries from 2017-2023 outpaced inflation by nearly 7 per cent, workers in health care, education and social assistance faced real dollar wage cuts.

These three female-dominated industries employ more than 90 per cent of the broader public sector workforce, and 32 per cent of all women in Ontario. While women in the rest of the economy improved their earnings relative to men, the wage erosion for public sector workers caused the province-wide gender wage gap to increase.

“This is an attack on women’s wages by Doug Ford. By restraining wages for public sector workers, the Ontario PCs are holding back progress for women,” said Sharon Richer, secretary-treasurer of OCHU-CUPE.

Richer said it appeared that the feminized labour of women in health care, social assistance, and education was deemed less valuable by the Conservative government. She said it was unconscionable for the government to implement wage cuts for the “the women caring for patients, the elderly, and other vulnerable members of our population.”

As of 2023, women across Ontario earned 87.2 cents for every dollar made by men, compared to 88 cents in 2018 when Ford was elected.

OCHU-CUPE’s report makes the case that the gendered impact of government policy is not only affecting women employees but is also negatively affecting the quality of public services with consequences for everyone.

In hospitals, wage suppression by the government has contributed to an unprecedented staffing crisis, as jobs in the sector have become less attractive compared to the rest of the economy.

In 2017, just before the Ford government was elected, hospital service wages were $1.41 less than the all-industry average.  They are now $4.41 behind the all-industry average – a loss of $3 an hour, or $5,850 annually.

Pam Parks, a registered practical nurse in Durham, said she and her co-workers have felt demoralized over the past several years as their wages have declined even as their workloads have sharply increased.

She said government wage restraint has caused many workers to quit the sector altogether, contributing to a growing staffing crisis. Vacancies in hospitals have tripled since 2015 and are now double the all-industry average.

“It’s tougher for us to pay our bills today than it was six or seven years go. It’s tougher to provide a decent quality of life for our children and our families,” Parks said. “Even as we are expected to work harder and selflessly for patients in our community, the government shows that it doesn’t care for our well-being and quality of life.”

Tracing public sector wage trends back to the 1980s, the report shows that workers have faced government wage restraint at various times alternating with periods when wages have improved.

However, since 2011, there has been an unusually prolonged wage decline for workers in health, social assistance, and education, which represents a third of all women workers in Ontario compared to only 9 per cent of men.

Jillian Watt, president of CUPE 7800, which represents workers at Hamilton Health Sciences, said health care workers are increasingly more precarious, which threatens the quality of care as evidenced by a long surgical waitlist, frequent emergency room closures, and an increase in hallway health care.

“Many hospital staff are working two jobs to keep up with the cost of living. Many of them are resorting to food banks,” she said. “Health care workers are cutting back on groceries. Cutting back on kids’ sports and recreational activities. There has been a steady erosion in our quality of life, as well as a decline in our working conditions. Which begs the question – is it worth continuing in this job?”

A recent survey of CUPE hospital staff showed that two out of five workers are considering quitting their jobs, which could further harm patient care in Ontario.

OCHU-CUPE has proposed several solutions to the staffing crisis including improving compensation and offering incentives for retention and recruitment, implementing staff-to-patient ratios, increasing full-time work, and banning agency nursing. The union says the government must increase the hospital budget by at least five per cent beyond inflation annually for the next four years to achieve these goals.

Download the report