NWT rolls out wage top-up for childcare workers


The NWT government has unveiled the next step in its childcare plan: money to help providers top up the wages they pay staff.

Using $4.6 million in federal funding over two years, the territory is introducing a top-up – or “retention initiative,” in its terminology – that pays $12,750 this year and $16,250 next year per full-time front-line position (or equivalent).

The move, which had been anticipated for most of the past year, follows the introduction of the first fee subsidy for NWT parents as the Liberal government moves toward cheaper, $10-a-day childcare.

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And just like the rollout of cheaper childcare, the introduction of the wage top-up is complex.

When providers received money to help reduce parents’ fees earlier this year, they said some of the rules eroded their independence. They said a cap on the amount by which fees can increase each year, introduced at the same time, could make it hard for some providers to make ends meet and pay staff a living wage.

At the time, the GNWT said the coming wage top-up would help to address that concern.

Now, the top-up is here. But again, some providers say the rules mean the financial support is not as helpful as it could be.

“They’ve tried to apply very simple math to a very complex situation,” said Patricia Davison of the NWT Early Childhood Association.

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The GNWT is introducing the wage top-up at the same time as it removes another funding pot, the Early Childhood Staff Grant.

The grant provided people working in childcare with up to $12,000 per year, depending on the hours they worked and their level of qualification, as a top-up to the salary received from their employer.

The GNWT is taking that program away and instead rerouting the money directly through employers as part of the wage top-up, which offers slightly larger sums annually.

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But Davison says the wage top-up – which is worked out based on certain full-time-equivalent positions – has a narrower focus than the grant, which gave at least some cash to people in a wide range of jobs and included part-time work.

Davison says the GNWT’s top-up works on the assumption of two staff per room and a certain number of hours per week but, in her view, does not factor in programs that run for more than eight hours a day or programs that are open over lunch. The wage top-up also does not cover the likes of development support workers for children with additional needs, Davison says.

“With the staff grant, anybody who worked front-line with the children – who spent a good portion of their day working with the children – was eligible, no questions asked,” she told Cabin Radio.

“With the new funding, they’re saying: ‘We have the staff grant portion and this federal top-up portion, so we’re going to give you this much per person, as we deem is necessary to meet the ratio of two people, maximum, per program room.

“We have all of these staff that have been getting staff grants and now they’re not considered in that formula.”

Davison says that leaves providers having to take the new wage top-up and divide it between more staff than it is intended to support. That dilutes the top-up and means some staff aren’t seeing any financial benefit at all compared to life with the staff grant.

“We have to take that money and either say, ‘Hey, you people, you get nothing going forward,’ which wouldn’t fly very well at all,” said Davison, “or take the money that we’re given and disperse it as fairly as possible between all of the staff who are working front-line.”

Grant and top-up overlapped

The NWT government says deleting the staff grant and merging it into the wage top-up helps to streamline the funding programs it offers, as a 2021 review had recommended.

In a statement on Friday last week, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment recognized that some providers would slice and dice the top-up to make it work.

The department said the top-up had been designed to allow that, so licensed operators can “distribute the funds to educators in the way that best meets their retention and recruitment needs.”

Davison said providers are scrambling to figure out how to take the new cash and use it fairly among staff who do or don’t technically count.

“I’m hearing from some programs that they’re barely able to cover the staff grant money, let alone give them, you know, anything that’s substantially extra,” she said.

But the department said it was “highly unlikely that educators would receive less.”

In its statement, the department noted that the staff grant only wrapped up at the end of September but the new wage top-up is backdated to April, so a six-month period exists where some staff could be covered by both the grant and the top-up.

Pay equity concern

Overall, the department said, the shift in investment is from $1.78 million every two years under the staff grant to $4.6 million under the new agreement.

Yet the YWCA NWT, in a letter to education minister RJ Simpson last week, raised a broader concern that a wage top-up for the charity’s childcare staff would do little for workers in other areas, leaving the organization managing an imbalance in the wages its employees receive.

“We are a multi-program organization that is committed to pay equity and fairness for all our staff to help ensure retention across all YWCA NWT programs, which include emergency and transitional housing for homeless families, shelters from family violence, inclusive programming for families and caregivers, and youth leadership programs,” YWCA NWT president Kate Reid wrote.

“Wage increases for one group of our staff conflicts with, and is detrimental to, our organization’s overall pay equity.”

Reid told Simpson the YWCA NWT wants to work with the territory on funding and training options that address that concern.

Simpson, in the territorial legislature, said he satisfied with overall progress on childcare provision in the territory.

“We have come a long way in the past year,” he said in a prepared statement.

“The GNWT and the federal government have invested millions of dollars in new childcare infrastructure, reducing childcare fees and increasing the wages of childcare workers. These actions have tangible results that are directly benefiting residents across the NWT.

“Although there is still a significant amount of work to be done, I feel confident saying that we are well on our way to creating a universal childcare system that will give every family across the NWT access to high-quality, affordable, accessible, and inclusive early learning and childcare.”