New Brunswick Premier’s comments on workers lack context

The assertion that workers are lazy or don’t want to do their jobs flies directly in the face of the tremendous work we’ve seen done during this pandemic.

Fredericton (4 May 2020) — Recently New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs has made comments that have been less than flattering concerning workers and their return to jobs as restrictions change in the province.

The Premier stated there could be issues with some people not wanting to return to work and instead continuing to collect the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payment of $2,000 per month from the federal government which was designed to aid folks who had lost employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More recently, columnists in right-leaning newspapers have been making the case that the help from the federal government has turned Canadian workers lazy. These assertions have no basis in fact and conveniently lack any type of context.

Comments fly in the face of evidence

The assertion that workers are lazy or don’t want to do their jobs flies directly in the face of the tremendous work we’ve seen done during this pandemic. A wide-range of workers, from those in the health care system to others in grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores, food service industry, and many others, have continued to work during this pandemic.

They have risked their health to keep our economy going, to keep us safe and protected. Instead of criticism, we should show gratitude for their sacrifices and labour.

Child care a deciding factor in whether workers can return to work

We also need to look at the circumstances people are facing. With schools and daycares shut down, some people may want to go back to work, but can’t as they need to care for family.

The provincial government made the right decision to close schools and daycares. However, you can’t turn around and criticize those who may not be able to go back to work due to the restrictions government put in place to protect citizens.

CERB illustrates New Brunswick minimum wage falls short of living wage

Another factor to consider is minimum wage in New Brunswick. The CERB was designed to provide enough money for people to survive during a pandemic. At $11.70 an hour, the NB minimum wage is about $1 per hour less than the CERB payment.

New Brunswick's minimum wage doesn’t even meet that standard. Instead of criticizing people, perhaps elected officials should be looking at increasing the minimum wage to at least the level deemed necessary for survival.

Higher minimum wage better for economy

Increasing the minimum wage could also have a great impact the economy. In a June 2, 2017 article in MacLean’s magazine, Toronto-based economist Armine Yalnizyan discusses the benefits of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

“When higher income households see wage gains, some of it goes to savings. Additional consumption also often flows to vacations and luxury goods, often imported. In other words a non-trivial part leaks out of the local economy," writes Yalnizyan. "When lower income households see a sustained rise in incomes, they spend virtually all of it. Most goes to food (more nutritious food or eating out), better health care and more education. Sometimes it also goes to rent (moving to a better neighbourhood). Almost all of this spending stays in the local economy. So boost the minimum wage and you boost the economy from the bottom up.”

Minimum wage increase would benefit businesses

Yalnizyan also addresses the criticism we most often see from business group when it comes to minimum wage increases, namely it will result in job losses and business closures.

“Boosting wages may knock out some jobs and some marginal businesses. The remaining enterprises that rely on low-wage work will see improved productivity, less absenteeism and turnover, reducing recruitment and training costs," says Yalnizyan. "We shouldn’t rue the loss of a few poorly paid jobs, particularly when rising minimum wages also help meet the twin challenges of the early 21st century: constrained revenue growth and higher service needs due to population aging. We’ve got to spur change, and a substantially higher minimum wage will surely spur change.”

Chance to make it right as we chart a new normal

The past quarter century has seen a dramatic shift in bargaining power towards employers, against workers. However, the past two months have shown the power of workers and their importance. Without workers, nothing works.

So, instead of levelling criticisms not rooted in facts, let’s encourage elected officials to change their way of thinking. Let’s give workers the respect they deserve and legislate change that will benefit everyone not just those at the top of the economic ladder.

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE