The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) / Syndicat des employés de la fonction publique de l’Ontario (SEFPO) is pleased to be able to submit to the Ontario Legislature’s Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs our recommendations in the pre-budget consultation for Ontario’s 2024/25 provincial budget.
OPSEU/SEFPO calls on the government to use the province’s 2024/25 provincial budget to make things better for ordinary people in Ontario. Invest in the public services that people rely on for a decent life and in the people who deliver those services. Reverse the cuts in services, the reductions in spending on public services, and the caps on public service and non-profit sector salaries and wages. Stop the give-aways to rich friends, CEOs and corporations.
Ontario has a healthy fiscal situation. The government’s 2023 Fall Economic Statement projected a deficit that was exactly the same amount as is currently stashed away in unspecified and growing “contingency reserve” funds. There was no need for a deficit at all. There is no reason for the provincial budget not to improve public services in Ontario or the lives of the people living in this province.
Under this Conservative government, overall spending on provincial government services is going down compared to population and inflation growth. As a result, public services suffer and so do the people who rely on them. People are forced to turn to more expensive private services. Public revenue is redirected to private profits rather than public services.
Ford’s Conservative government is like a reverse Robin Hood, taking from the poor and the ordinary who depend on and deliver public services and giving to the rich and super-rich to make private profits. From electricity subsidies before the pandemic to new rules for liquor sales in grocery and convenience stores, this government has consistently put corporations before the people who live here. This government has given billions to the Westons, the 3rd richest family in Canada. Further, eight property developers who are close the government stood to gain $8 billion from the rezoning of the Greenbelt. Despite the thousands of extra deaths of frail seniors in private for-profit long-term care homes during the pandemic, Premier Ford’s government is granting the same corporations that own them new 30 year contracts.
Public services are a foundation for reducing social inequality and poverty. When governments invest their revenues in public education, public health care, public housing, public transit and decent public sector jobs they create a floor for equality. Cutting public services increases inequality and poverty and is not the role government should play.
The affordability crisis is a crisis of inequality – the growing gap between the rich and the poor – except now it’s the gap between the rich and the rest of us! There are two ways to fix an affordability crisis – make things cost less, or make sure ordinary people can earn enough to afford a decent life and ensure that they can rely on the public services available and paid for through their taxes.
This government has made us all worse off. You can’t get a family doctor; it takes months to get a diagnostic test or some common surgeries; schoolboards don’t have enough to keep the buildings safe; there aren’t enough education assistants to keep kids safe; ambulance offload delays persist; the need for mental health services is at record levels yet patients in crisis may wait years to access the care they need; there is virtually no deeply affordable housing available; colleges and universities have to cut programs and rely on international student tuition to stay open; and long-term care and home care simply aren’t funded or resourced adequately to meet growing demand. The list goes on.
These services are suffering because of choices made by the Ford Conservative government. It is a choice to pay 300% more for private surgeries than public hospitals would be paid for the same surgeries. It is a choice to reduce public revenue from alcohol sales and distribution so that the Westons and others can make more private profits selling wine, beer and ready to drink cocktails. It is a choice to turn over provincial landmarks like Ontario Place and the Ontario Science Centre to private developers and then build a multi-million-dollar parking lot with public funds. It is a choice to ignore advice from the provincial civil service, eviscerate municipal planning bylaws and rezone huge tracts of the Greenbelt so friends benefit with a windfall of $8 billion in increased property values.
Provincial revenues aren’t the cause of the affordability crisis – they’re the way to start to solve it!
With the upcoming 2024/2025 provincial budget, the government is faced with both an opportunity and some choices to make. Our advice is to use this budget to make life better for ordinary people in Ontario, not worse.
Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)/Syndicat des employés de la fonction publique de l’Ontario (SEFPO)
OPSEU/SEFPO represents more than 180,000 frontline workers who have the unique insight and experience necessary to identify ways to improve public services while addressing the affordability crisis and increasing the quality of life for all Ontarians. OPSEU/SEFPO members come from all social, economic, racial and cultural groups, live in communities across the province and work in over 20 different sectors. They keep Ontario running.
Provincial government program spending
Ontario government spending on public services and programs has not kept up with inflation and population growth. Adjusting spending for inflation and population growth to calculate “real per capita” spending shows program spending has declined each year since this government was elected.
“…how much the government is spending per person in Ontario in constant dollars in 2023-24, compared to 2018-19.
The results are astonishing. Real per-capita spending on post-secondary education has dropped by 11 per cent since 2018. In children’s and social services, it is down 12 per cent; in education, it is down 11 per cent; and, in the justice sector it is down by just over two per cent. Only in the health sector do we see any increase at all, and that is a mere 2.9 per cent.”1
Spending in health care has been so low for so long that last year’s announced increase of 2.9% will leave us further behind rather than ahead. Ontario has the fewest hospital beds per person of any province in Canada and funds hospitals at the lowest rate in the country.2 Funding of new long-term care beds is not on track to meet demand.3 The need for mental health services and in particular youth mental health services is exploding but there aren’t enough services and workers to meet the need. Wait times can be so astronomical that children age right out of the system without receiving proper health care.4
The Conservative government promised that they would ensure that frail seniors didn’t suffer deaths like they did in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. They promised to increase the number of provincial inspectors for long-term care (LTC) and ensure that each LTC home received a surprise inspection each year as these find many more infractions of care standards and regulations. This has not happened. It will take at least another 3 years to conduct one surprise inspection in each LTC home at the rate they’re going.5
Ontario isn’t spending enough on public services.6
“[D]ata from Statistics Canada shows how Ontario stacked up against the other provinces in 2022 when it comes to program spending per person. Once again, Ontario was dead last.
In 2022, Ontario’s program spending per capita was $3,863 less than the average of the other provinces. This means that for every dollar per person spent on programs in other provinces, Ontario spent 75 cents.”7
The results are severe. Here are some of the latest.
The provincial Auditor General reported last December that there were over 200 temporary hospital emergency room closures between July 2022 and June 2023, mostly in rural and remote areas where there are not nearby alternatives.8 By all of the measures examined, the AG reported that care in emergency rooms had worsened over the 10 years leading up to the COVID-19 epidemic.9 That epidemic demonstrated in very painful ways that years of restraint had led to a health care system unable to adequately serve the population in regular years and with no surge capacity to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic. Ontario Health has reported that last year Ontario hit a new and terrible record for hallway medicine, with 1,326 people on stretchers in Ontario emergency department hallways or other unconventional spaces on an average day.10
Ontario’s court system is on the edge of collapse. Criminal and civil cases alike are being postponed beyond any reasonable timeline and some are ultimately being thrown out or abandoned. As in all sectors, the problem is a combination of the lack of staff, poor wages and decades-long underspending on maintenance and infrastructure. Buildings are run down and uninhabitable. Justice Peter Fraser of the Ontario Court of Justice called it “a startling failure by the state to fulfill its basic responsibility”.11
Post-secondary education is suffering from years of underfunding as well. The Conservative government’s own Blue-Ribbon Panel on Post-Secondary Education Financial Stability, reporting in November 2023, found that Ontario’s funding per college student is just 44% of that in the rest of Canada, and funding per university student is 57% compared to the rest of Canada.12 The panel recommended an immediate funding increase of 10% to make up for inflation over past years and annual increases to keep pace with the cost of living. It also recommended ending the freeze on tuition fees, increasing them 5% for the academic year beginning in the fall of 2024 and planning for annual increases. To offset the accessibility impacts of higher tuition fees, they recommended that a “one-time increase with annual adjustments to tuition levels must be offset by equally generous commitments to increased investment in needs-based student assistance by universities and colleges, as well as by government.”13 Recent scape-goating of international students in response to the affordable housing crisis and subsequent caps on their enrolment are going to starve the colleges and some universities. It is absurd that post-secondary education in Ontario has been made to be so dependent on the fees paid by international students that the federal government’s reduction of numbers will lead to job losses and closures.
Our public school systems are in crisis. In Windsor the chair of the Greater Essex County District School Board says students with special needs are not getting the education they deserve because of staff shortages. It’s a problem that started before the pandemic and is made worse by poor wages and austerity policies that deprive schools of support functions.14 Ontario’s Principals’ Council warns that across the province they are grappling with daily staff shortages in all categories, particularly educational assistants. 15
“According to the FAO, year-over-year spending on education increased by 4.6 per cent between the first three quarters of 2021-22 and the first three quarters of 2022-23. That sounds good—until you dig into the numbers. As the FAO explains, $762 million—or 89 per cent of the new education money this year—is actually going to expand child care in Ontario. … 97 per cent of that funding is coming from the federal government, so the actual expenditure by the province is very small.
Remove child care dollars from new education spending and the actual spending increase on elementary and secondary education is 0.5 per cent. In contrast, CCPA Ontario has estimated that helping children bounce back after the pandemic will require that the province increase base funding for education by at least 13 per cent. A funding increase of less than one-half of one per cent is nothing less than cruel punishment.” 16
Last summer communities in northern Ontario faced real danger when the province was short 50 fire crews. By June there were 279 confirmed wildfires, about the same number as the entire fire season the year before, and over 120,000 hectares of forest had burned, in contrast to only 2,560 hectares that were burned the entire previous year. Because the province has cut back to 3- and 6- month contracts from permanent jobs, it can’t attract and retain enough firefighters. Instead, it had to ask for international assistance and fly in over 100 firefighters from Mexico.
Ontario’s correctional system is in crisis. Ontario spends less per offender than any other province and it shows – our institutions are crumbling and there’s a critical shortage of correctional officers. This is happening at a time when the dismantling of the social safety net in Ontario has led to an increase in the incarceration of people with complex mental and physical health needs that the correctional system is not equipped to handle. The Ministry needs to invest in training and supports; this will make the correctional system safer workplaces and will also lead to marked improvements in outcomes for people who are incarcerated. An average of two correctional staff members are assaulted every day, while nearly one in three suffer from PTSD. The youth justice system is in shambles since half of the services were closed in 2021. The closure of the Cecil Facer Centre in Sudbury is slated to close will force young people in custody to move hours away from their families and communities.
The government of Ontario doesn’t have a revenue problem. Revenues have grown at twice the rate of inflation since Premier Ford’s government was elected. With revenues growing faster than spending and the provincial government’s over-estimates on program spending, the FAO projects that the government will have a budget surplus each year – even after putting $4 billion into contingency funds, $1 billion into reserves and funneling untold amounts of cash into the pockets of their corporate friends.
Even so, Ontario could collect more revenue than it does.
“In 2022, Canada’s provinces outside of Ontario directed an average 18.5 per cent of their economy towards funding provincial public programs. For its part, Ontario raised 14.4 per cent.
… this is a huge gap. Given that Ontario’s GDP last year came in at $1.05 trillion, the province would have to collect an extra $43 billion in revenue just to be average among the provinces. An increase of that size would have boosted overall provincial revenues by more than 22 per cent last year.”17
The Ford Conservative government is choosing to give away public revenue while enriching their friends. The Ford government’s recently announced plan to scrap the cap on the number of big box grocers who sell alcohol will threaten millions of dollars in public revenues from LCBO sales. The LCBO generates $2.5 billion annually in revenues that go directly back into the public coffers to pay for hospitals, schools, and other public services. Current grocery store sales and the availability of alcohol on food delivery apps have already reduced public revenue from the LCBO. Even though alcohol consumption went up during the pandemic, revenue from the LCBO declined between 2020 and 2023.18 Ford’s new plan opens the floodgate to big box grocers and gas stations to sell beer, wine, cider and pre-mixed “ready to drink” cocktails and increase their private profits while draining public revenues.
It’s an old trick used by governments ideologically opposed to public services. Cut back public services, let them run down until they’re unsatisfactory and people who have the funds will start looking for private alternatives. Then use the poor service as an excuse to divest the public service to someone who says they can make a profit from it, and/or create a two-tier situation.
We’ve seen that play out at Ontario Place on Toronto’s waterfront. The provincial jewel was neglected for years and allowed to deteriorate, making it much more expensive to restore and rejuvenate than it could have been. Now, despite objections from almost everyone, Premier Ford has signed a 95-year lease with a private company to redevelop this precious public space and promised $650 million in public funds for infrastructure upgrades across the Ontario Place grounds including a new 2,000-space underground parking garage.
In a recent report, Ontario’s Auditor General showed us that this is exactly what has happened with Ontario’s two Science Centres as well.19 They’ve been allowed to run down and now the province says it needs to build new ones rather than fix the existing ones. The government’s own business case report admits that moving the science centre from North York to the new private spa on Lake Ontario “… could counter negative perceptions of the commercialization and privatization” of Ontario Place.”20
The recent announcement that some Service Ontario contracts with private providers are ending and will be given to the giant American-owned retailer Staples illustrates another dimension to this problem. The job posting for a Staples ServiceOntario states that “the candidate chosen for the position will have to “influence the monetization of ServiceOntario traffic,” and that the employee will be asked to “drive sales and profit results” from ServiceOntario customers.”21 Not only will ServiceOntario not have the delivery of high quality public services as its objective, but public funding will be directed to enhancing Staples sales and profits.
The most egregious example of this approach – starve public services and then claim to solve the problems they have by privatizing – is Ontario’s crisis-ridden health care system. The most recent revelations are that the provincial government will pay private for-profit clinics an average of three times more per procedure than they pay a public hospital. Even the flimsy excuse that the private sector can deliver services for less seems to have been abandoned by this government.
“For example, data obtained from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) shows that knee replacement surgery in a public hospital, paid by the province, costs about $10,000. The same surgery in a private clinic can reportedly cost patients up to $28,000.”22
The data doesn’t demonstrate that adding and paying for private for-profit surgeries brings needed new facilities online or shortens wait times.23 The professionals working in these private clinics will be drained from the public system, exacerbating the existing staffing issues.
It’s especially galling to see a former Minister of Health under this government lobbying for these for-profit clinics.
The provincial government recently announced that they are also out-sourcing inspection and enforcement of standards at these private health care facilities to a private company. It has contracted Accreditation Canada and its international affiliate Health Services Organization (HSO) to start April 1, implying this enables more private clinics to open in the near future. This is one more example of work being transferred from public servants who are dedicated to protecting the public interest to, in this case, in international organization whose ultimate purpose is maximizing its own gains.
Affordability and equality
Healthy public services underpin a society’s efforts to decrease social and economic inequality – both the gap between the poorest and richest, and the impact of discrimination based on socially defined characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation and physical abilities. Public services have the objective of creating equal opportunity for all. It is obvious that having to pay for private services disadvantages those with lower incomes and undermines equal opportunity.
The persistent notion that public sector workers are better paid than private sector workers just isn’t the case now (if it ever was).24 In her analysis of Ontario’s economy Sheila Block demonstrated this by looking at employment in 10 low-wage occupations that are predominantly in the public sector.
“… average annual earning in these occupations are well below the average for the workforce as a whole. Average annual earnings in 2015 ranged from $25,331 for teaching assistants for elementary and secondary school students to $44,452 for licensed practical nurses (RPNs in Ontario), as compared to average earnings of $51,105 for all occupations. … [It] also demonstrates that these occupations are overwhelmingly female. In nine out of 10 of these occupations, 80% or more of the workforce is women: they range from 78% of other assisting occupations in health services to 97% of early childhood educators and assistants as compared to the 49% that women account for of employment in all occupations. Finally, visible minority women are over-represented in nine out of 10 of these occupations. While they account for 13% of employment in all occupations, they account for 38% of home support workers, housekeepers, and related occupations and 16% of social and community service workers. The other 7 occupations fall between these two percentages.” 25P.34
It isn’t surprising to see that all of these jobs are in the “caring” occupations traditionally performed by women both in the home and for pay. Much of this work is precarious work.26 The impact of the pandemic on workers in these sectors is still ongoing – they suffer from burnout and as we have already noted, face recruitment and retention issues almost across the board. In many cases, while wages are a major factor in recruitment and retention, other deeper factors – including the lack of respect and the psychological and physical dangers that so many women workers in these sectors face on a daily basis – have exacerbated the staffing shortages.
Wages and Working Conditions
This is not the forum where OPSEU/SEFPO will address the impacts of this government’s unconstitutional Bill 124 wage caps on employees in the public and not-for-profit sectors.
Nonetheless, in commenting on next year’s provincial budget, we have to say that this government’s policies have created problems in recruiting and retaining employees across all of the public sector and in transfer payment agencies which depend on provincial funding. The austerity measures and funding that hasn’t kept pace with demand have led to staffing shortages across every Ministry and service. There are fewer people to do the work leading to more burnout, more illness and more absences. There is lower morale and more turnover. The revolving door in Ontario’s public service is a direct result of this government’s policies and choices.
OPSEU/SEFPO members want to deliver high quality public services. They are proud to serve their communities. Yet they deserve fair pay and good working conditions. We think that should be one of the objectives of this provincial budget.
Our best advice for the province’s 2024/25 provincial budget is to use this opportunity to make things better for ordinary people in Ontario, not worse.
Properly fund public services. Reverse the cuts in services, the reductions in spending on public services, and the caps on public service and non-profit sector salaries and wages. Stop the give-aways to rich friends, CEOs and corporations and direct public dollars to public services not private profits.
Invest in the public services that people rely on for a decent life and in the people who deliver those services.
9 Ibid pp 2 – 5
13 Ibid pages 20 & 29
24 Block, Sheila. Expert Report of Sheila Block Responding to Dr. David Dodge: Expert Opinion for Applicants (Coalition of Trade Unions) regarding the Charter Challenge to Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act, 2019 (“Bill 124”). p. 32 ff
25 Block, p 34