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Ontario to boost early childhood educator wages in bid to ease staff shortage

Ontario is set to increase the wages of early childhood educators in a bid to boost recruitment and retention amid a staff shortage that advocates warn could hamper the growth of the national $10-a-day child-care program.

The government has drafted -- but not yet released -- a child-care workforce strategy based on consultations held earlier this year with dozens of groups, including advocates, experts, operators, municipalities and colleges.

The Canadian Press obtained Ministry of Education summaries on those consultation sessions through a Freedom of Information request and they show that the government was overwhelmingly told variations of "pay ECEs more."

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in an interview with The Canadian Press that he received the feedback "loud and clear."

"What we heard is that we've got to do more to create more incentives to retain the workers and to recruit new ones, because we need thousands of additional workers to meet the needs to fill the 86,000 spaces that the province is on track to create," he said.

"My assurance to the ECEs, to the workers in the sector, is that we're going to go further."

Ontario committed in its deal with the federal government on $10-a-day child-care to set a wage floor of $18 an hour in 2022 and increase it by $1 a year up to $25. But Lecce said he is heeding the calls to do more.

"I think these workers deserve it," he said, while not specifying what the increase will be.

The Association of Early Childhood Educators of Ontario has called for a minimum of $30 an hour for ECEs and $25 an hour for non-ECE staff members. Either one or two of the workers in a child-care room are required to be an ECE, depending on the age of the children.

Alana Powell, the association's executive director, said she is cautiously optimistic at the news that Lecce has committed to further increasing ECE pay, but worries it will still be less than what's needed and will be delayed by the rollout of a broader child-care workforce strategy.

"We know wages are the issue, we know the wage floor is far too low...so why aren't we just sort of immediately addressing low wages while we continue to build these other longer-term strategies out?" she said.

Child-care centres have traditionally relied on parent fees to largely fund operations, including staff wages, but under the $10-a-day program they cannot raise fees, and have asked the province to fund raises for ECEs in order to attract and retain them.

The YMCA says that due to staff shortages, none of its child-care locations provincewide operate at full licensed capacity. It would need nearly 3,000 more staff to do that, and almost 3,500 in order to expand by 20 per cent.

Unless the 86,000 new spaces promised by the province are accompanied by improved workforce compensation, child-care operators will struggle to implement the new child-care system, the agency told the government in a blunt assessment at the start of the consultations.

"Our position on that would be to pause on expansion until we get the workforce issues dealt with," Linda Cottes, the YMCA of Greater Toronto senior vice-president of child and family development said in an interview this week.

"How can you move forward If we're still struggling with getting enough qualified staff?"

Ministry documents from the start of the consultations show that officials estimate the province could be 8,500 ECEs short by 2026.

And while the province plans to create 86,000 new child-care spaces, Ontario's financial accountability officer has estimated the additional demand spurred by lower fees will outpace the current expansion plans by more than 220,000 spaces by 2026.

Shortages are already affecting the sector. The number of ECEs in licensed child care decreased by seven per cent between 2019 and 2021, government documents say. Child-care centres have had to close rooms because they are unable to staff them.

About 4,200 new students enroll in an early childhood education program each year and the average graduation rate is about 72 per cent, but only about half of registered ECEs choose to work in licensed child care, according to the government.

Some of the people and organizations in the consultations told the government to raise ECE wages to be on par with school board pay -- around $28 an hour on average, advocates say -- because the higher pay entices many to work in full-day kindergarten instead of child care.

A summary by the government lists dozens of other workforce suggestions from the consultations, including offering pensions, benefits and a wage grid, adding ECEs to a list of priority occupations under the Ontario Immigrant Nominee Program, accelerated tuition-free diploma programs, and a provincial media campaign to recognize the value of early childhood educators.

Carolyn Ferns, the policy co-ordinator for the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, said a media campaign wouldn't hurt, but it's certainly not the priority.

"It's the thing that I would do after I'd solved the core issue, the root of the problem, which is the low wages in the sector," she said in an interview.

"A media campaign telling people child care is a great place to work, that's only going to work if it really becomes a great place to work."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.

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