Sometime later this month articles about Ontario's 'Sunshine List' will once again be splashed across news outlets as the data for last year is published. I'm often asked my thoughts on the Sunshine List: my primary thought is that I wish people didn't get so worked up about it, and my secondary thought is that the Sunshine List is a fairly useless document these days, and it really should be updated or abandoned.
We've had the annually published Sunshine List for two decades now. Back in 1996 the Mike Harris Conservative government passed the Ontario Public Disclosure Act, which the government of the day suggested would offer transparency and would highlight increasing spending on public sector payrolls. The Act requires organizations that receive provincial funding make public the names, positions, and salaries of employees who are paid $100,000 or more each year.
As a result, for the past 20 years, we in Ontario have had the ability to know who in our various government bodies earns more than $100,000. But while an annual salary of $100,000 back in 1996 was a hefty chunk of change, it is much less so today, yet the threshold for earning a spot on the list hasn't budged. As you might expect, without an annual adjustment for inflation, more and more public sector employees are landing on the list every year.
While the intent 20 years ago might have been to shine a light on the salaries of top level government workers, today a large number of those who land on the list are quite likely to be nurses, police officers, teachers, and yes, municipal CAOs and other top-level municipal managers wind up on the list as well.
According to reports last year when the Sunshine List was released, if the original $100,000 threshold for making the list had been adjusted for inflation each year, the current threshold would be roughly $142,000.
Meaford didn't have any of its own employees on the list until 2009 when the CAO of the day landed on the list with annual earnings of $118,000. Last year seven Meaford staffers made it onto the list, though one of those had been restructured out of their position leaving only six current staffers on the list.
Had the threshold been increasing each year to account for inflation, Meaford's first staffer to land on the list would not have been in 2009, but rather last year when current CAO Denyse Morrissey's 2015 salary of $147,838.60 would have earned her a spot (barely), and she would be the only Meaford staffer on the list given that the other five current staffers on last year's list had salaries ranging from $100,153 to $106,925, each of them just barely making it onto the list with the current $100,000 threshold, but far below an inflation-adjusted threshold.
As one might expect, some have made a big deal about the growing number of Meaford staffers landing on the Sunshine List, but without an annual inflation adjustment, it is simply inevitable that more and more small town municipal employees will make the list. Given enough time, we'll start to see snowplow drivers, administrative assistants, and building caretakers on the list too. After all, 20 years ago, when the list was born, there were just 4,756 names on the list (and not very many of them would have been nurses, teachers or police officers), while last year there were more than 110,000 on the list.
The list continues to grow by double digit percentages year over year, but it isn't because public sector salaries are out of control, it's because the list still uses a threshold of $100,000, while if we're to have the list at all, and have it hold any meaning, we should be using a threshold of more than $142,000 today.
A hundred grand is still a lot of money, but it ain't what it used to be. Twenty years ago it was the salary of upper-level management types, while today $100,000 is the going rate for a wide range of jobs, and in another ten years it will be the standard pay for an even wider range of jobs. So what good is the list other than to have an ever greater number of decent wage earners publicly shamed simply because their employer is paying them not an excessive, but a competitive, wage?
I would suggest that a better and more informative annual list would be a list of private sector employers who pay below a living wage (let's be clear, a minimum wage is far from a living wage). We could list the name of the employer, the top salaries in the company, and the number of their employees who earn less than a living wage.
If we want to shame, let's shame the right things.