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Has the absence of National Hockey League players affected the distribution and sale of groceries? Has the absence of Major League Baseball players impacted the level of care to seniors or those with disabilities? Clearly, the answer to both of these questions is “No.”
Now imagine the impact on society of an extended absence of grocery store workers, truck drivers, warehouse workers and personal support workers (or PSWs). These workers, and others in similar roles, are central to the effective and efficient operation of basic social and economic systems, such as food supply and distribution and care for our most vulnerable citizens. These types of workers have a high social value.
In normal pre-pandemic times, these high social value workers have been largely ignored by political policy-makers, employers and even customers. Their skill sets have been seen as low and easily replaced. As a result, their pay has typically been low compared to other classes of workers whose social value is not as high. Remember the arguments early in Doug Ford’s Ontario government about changing the minimum wage?
One thing we can know for sure is there will be other social and economic crises in our future. We can never allow our high social value workers to become invisible again. Their position in our society and economy must be secure. There are five ways to go about this.
First, high social value workers must have a voice, one that is heard by policy-makers, employers and customers. In many industrial sectors, labour unions have played a central and effective role by providing this voice. Where unions don’t exist, employers would be well-advised, right now, to create real, open and honest channels of communications, such as employee councils.
Employers unfamiliar with effective employee communications might think about inviting unions to meet with their employees and management. The bottom line here is simple. High social value workers must be given the opportunity to effectively influence their employment and work environment. Workers who have a high sense of control over their employment will stay committed and engaged.
Second, policy-makers must think long and hard before meddling in compensation and benefits structures for high social value workers. We must allow workers, their representatives and their employers to develop a mutual understanding of their real social value beyond a simple accounting for skills or ease of replacement. Pay is a very tangible way to communicate a simple, but compelling, message: “You are valued. You are essential and we want you to stay with us.” Employers who take the initiative and pay people in line with this message might never have to negotiate wages again.
Third, high social value workers must be given opportunities to develop skills beyond the minimum required to do the job. They must also be provided with career tracks that use these new skills. Pay scales must also reflect their increasing skills and contributions. Nobody wants to have doors to the future closed. Workers who see a positive future of growth for themselves are much more likely to remain fully engaged in their employment, with their employer and in their sector.
Fourth, where appropriate, there should be processes for professional accreditation and regulation. This may be especially applicable to PSWs and similar workers. These processes would provide workers and employers with agreed standards for basic behaviours and discipline. For example, professional colleges now provide this foundation for a host of health-care workers, from audiologists to traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. These colleges can also foster workers’ pride and engagement. As an urgent priority, policy-makers, employers and workers should examine the applicability of this model in specific sectors, such as long-term care homes for seniors and homes for citizens with disabilities.
"The profile of high social value workers must be developed and managed with the goal of ensuring policy-makers and employers never lose sight of people who may have been somewhat invisible in the past."
Finally, our current focus on high social value workers must be maintained and sharpened. Right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, memes are circulating online dubbing, for example, grocery store workers as “superheroes.” These are lovely and perhaps comforting for those of us who have never really seen or acknowledged these workers before. These memes, however, are just fluff in the end and are likely to blow away in post-pandemic breezes.
The profile of high social value workers must be developed and managed with the goal of ensuring policy-makers and employers never lose sight of people who may have been somewhat invisible in the past or, at best, seen as interchangeable parts in complex social and economic systems.
The responsibility to maintain focus can be taken on by unions, employee councils or appropriate and newly formed professional colleges. Smart political policy-makers and employers will take the initiative and join this effort.