Saturday, May 21, 2022

Ontario’s Sunshine List Casts a Shadow on Reality

Rather than shining a bright light on ‘overpaid’ government workers, Ontario’s antiquated ‘Sunshine List’ casts a shadow on the real struggles of Ontarians, and true inequity found here and beyond our borders.

We’ve had the annually published Sunshine List for more than a quarter century now. Back in 1996 when the Mike Harris Conservative government passed the Ontario Public Disclosure Act, the government of the day suggested it 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 26 years, we in Ontario have had the ability to know who in our various government bodies earns more than $100,000. The reality is that an annual salary of $100,000 back in 1996 was a hefty chunk of change, however 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.

As a result, while in the first year of the list’s publication it included just 4,756 public sector employees, last year more than 205,000 made it onto the list. This year’s (2021) Sunshine List includes more than 240,000 public sector employees, and the reason is simple – $100,000 just isn’t what it used to be.

If the original $100,000 threshold for making the list had been adjusted for inflation each year, the current threshold would be roughly $175,000. In 2022, a $100,000 salary isn’t excessive. It isn’t obscene, it is a good salary that can offer a comfortable middle class existence, but there are no multi-million dollar homes or hundred thousand dollar super-cars in the driveway.

Rather than ‘shaming’ teachers, and nurses, and doctors, and police officers, and firefighters, municipal administrators, and dozens of other taxpayer-funded professions for earning a living wage, why isn’t our focus on the corporate world, where there is a refusal to pay real living wages while CEOs rake in millions upon millions, many accumulating billions of dollars on the backs of underpaid workers? Why do we feel the need to shame government workers while letting obscenely wealthy corporate CEOs off the hook?

I understand that our tax dollars pay for these government worker salaries, and I am all for transparency and accountability, but I don’t think that is what the Sunshine List offers us. Instead it gives us a snapshot of government workers who earn a salary that was considered excessive a quarter century ago, an income that in the private sector is common for many professions, and not considered to be excessive.

While many Ontarians are expressing outrage over government-funded workers earning more than $100,000 last year, real issues like affordable housing or increasing poverty take a back seat. From my perspective, government-funded workers earning $100,000 per year is the least of our worries, and we need to understand that we are demonizing the wrong folks.

A hundred grand is still a lot of money, but it ain’t what it used to be. Twenty-six years ago it was the salary of shirt-and-tie-wearing top-level management types, while today $100,000 is the going rate for a wide range of jobs, including plumbers, electricians, pilots, and many others, 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 (and percentage) of their employees who earn less than a living wage.

If we want to shame, let’s shame the right things, and educated, hardworking government workers are far from the right folks to shame in 2022.

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