3 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we put together a list of three women who inspire us. These remarkable individuals live right here in Toronto and York Region—changing lives and making our community a better place to live each and every day.

JOSHNA MAHARAJ: Joshna’s appetite for community change is insatiable. As a busy chef with big ideas, the South African native has demonstrated a tremendous passion for turning her culinary interests into community activism. After graduating from McMaster University, Joshna spent time living in India before returning to Toronto to pursue a career in the food industry. Joshna believes passionately that food “is a crucial piece of community building and rejuvenation.” She began her culinary career at The Stop Community Food Centre and also volunteered at FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, where she helped develop a student nutrition program. At the Scarborough Hospital, for example, she worked tirelessly to overhaul the patient menu to include healthier, more culturally-appropriate options—the first project of its kind in Ontario. These days she’s busy working on her vision to bring large-scale change to the healthcare, rehabilitation and education sectors so that people can access fresh, local food when they visit places like hospitals and universities. “Food is such a perfect common denominator,” says Joshna. “It nourishes our bodies, but it also nourishes our spirit. There is a connection and a conviviality that comes from gathering in a kitchen, community garden or at a table. These are things that really give people a sense of belonging.” We love Joshna’s passion for her work and her tireless efforts to bring people together around food. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next!

CHEYANNE RATNAM: At just 14, Cheyanne experienced hidden homelessness, couch-surfing with friends after she was forced to leave home because of family conflict and abuse. Cheyanne, who is Sri Lankan, was eventually placed into the care of the Children’s Aid Society where she remained during high school, yet managed to excel. Despite struggling with homelessness and a number of other barriers—including mental health issues like depression—Cheyanne was determined to build a better life for herself—and others just like her. Today, she’s thriving, after graduating from university and pursuing a busy career in the social services sector where she advocates on behalf of homeless newcomer youth and young people in and out of the child welfare and adoption system. One of her proudest accomplishments? In 2014, she co-founded What’s the Map—an advocacy and research group that has started a cross-sectoral conversation on how to remove barriers and better meet the needs of newcomer homeless youth. Cheyanne is also a public speaker for the Children’s Aid Foundation and a coordinator at Ryerson University for an education symposium for youth in care. And despite a busy schedule, she still finds time to mentor young people experiencing homelessness and other barriers. We’re inspired by Cheyanne’s remarkable resiliency and passion to help young people. And we’re not the only ones! Last year, her alma mater, York University, recognized her with a prestigious Bryden Award that celebrates remarkable contributions to the university community and beyond. “I hope to send a message to young people who are facing barriers that they are not alone and that it’s ‘OK to not be OK’. I want them to know that we’re here to help. The present circumstances should not define who you are or who you’ll become.”

SUSAN MCISAAC: We may be a little biased, but we think our recently-retired President and CEO, Susan McIsaac, is an extraordinarily inspiring individual who has dedicated her life’s work to championing social justice. During her 18 years at United Way (six years at the helm), Susan was a key architect of United Way’s transformation from trusted fundraiser to community mobilizer and catalyst for impact. She’s an inspiring example of a bold and compassionate leader who cares deeply about making a difference in the lives of people and families across our region. “We have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to make sure the kind of disenfranchisement that has cracked the foundation of other places doesn’t jeopardize our home,” explains Susan. “To make that happen, we need to re-commit ourselves to ensuring that anyone and everyone who works hard can get ahead.” It’s this very sense of commitment that continues to reverberate throughout the community services sector and beyond. So much so, in fact, that just last month, Susan was awarded the TRBOT’s Toronto Region Builder Award for her significant contribution to improving communities, and in 2014 was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by WXN.

What is the precarity penalty?

Our guest blogger is Dr. Wayne Lewchuk, co-author of The Precarity Penalty: The impact of employment precarity on individuals, households and communities―and what to do about it. Wayne is also a professor at McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies and Department of Economics.

Precarity Penalty FINAL lowres for web-1

The Precarity Penalty

Today, PEPSO, a research partnership between United Way Toronto and McMaster University releases its new report, The Precarity Penalty: The impact of employment precarity on individuals, households and communities―and what to do about it. The Precarity Penalty examines the social and economic effects of short-term and insecure employment. It asks, what are the challenges facing workers in short-term employment in terms of getting ahead, establishing healthy households and participating in community life. The findings are troubling.

Uncertain future employment prospects can increase anxiety at home.  Lack of benefits can make even small unexpected medical costs a crisis.  Unpredictable work schedules can make finding suitable childcare very difficult.  The short-term nature of the employment relationship can limit a worker’s access to the training needed to get ahead. Together, the added challenges associated with insecure employment represent The Precarity Penalty.

In short, precarious employment not only creates significant stress on individuals and families today, it also creates conditions that can trap those who are in precarious employment from opportunities to get ahead.

Given that insecure employment is the fastest growing form of employment, we should all be concerned about what this means for our families, our children and our communities.

A new body of research (see references below), much of it focused on the troubles in the U.S. economy, suggests that public policy has fallen short, and at times exacerbated the challenges facing precarious workers. These policies have exposed workers to more economic uncertainty, reduced supports that help build healthy families and made it more difficult than in the past for workers to negotiate improved working conditions. There is evidence that Canada’s own public policy environment has not fared much better in terms of protecting vulnerable workers.

What policy has enabled, policy can change.  It is not inevitable that a growing number of Canadian workers find themselves in relationships that make it difficult to get ahead. The mechanisms we use to regulate labour markets, including how contracts are negotiated, how we set and enforce employment standards, how we support workers between jobs, how quality training is provided, and how workers can finance unexpected health costs and old age were all formed when permanent full-time employment was the norm.

We need to revisit these mechanisms in light of the spread of less secure employment and ensure that our public policies match the realities facing Canadians today.

Other countries have accepted this challenge. Canada can do the same.


David Weil, The Fissured Workplace

Lawrence Mishel, The State of Working America

Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality



Big win on precarious employment


On November 6, the Ontario government passed new legislation that introduces further protections for vulnerable workers.


PEPSO report highlights new labour reality

United Way Toronto, in partnership with McMaster University, was instrumental in bringing about changes to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, which included a call to government to introduce protections around lost wages for precariously employed individuals.

This new legislation is an important step forward in building a labour market that works.

Read more about precarious employment and its effects here:






Precarious employment takes a toll

Job loss. Unemployment. Income gaps. Over the past couple of months—and during the lead up to Toronto’s recent municipal election—there’s been a lot of talk about all that ails the city’s increasingly fractured labour market. Job creation has slowed considerably. Toronto’s youth unemployment rate is more than double the national average. And the income gap between older and younger workers is growing at an alarming pace.


This joint report between United Way and McMaster University examines our region’s rapidly-changing labour market

While the city’s muted job creation tends to grab most of the headlines, there’s an equally concerning labour trend afoot. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen a 50% rise in precarious, or unstable employment, according to research conducted by United Way Toronto and McMaster University.

In fact, more than 40% of people in the Hamilton-GTA region experience some degree of precarity, or insecurity, in their work, which has serious economic and social consequences for Toronto.

As this recent Globe and Mail article points out, “the shift to a just-in-time labour market creates a host of difficulties for long-term planning, eligibility for jobless benefits, and often results in a diminished ability to save.” Erratic hours “also create challenges in pursing an education, arranging childcare and qualifying for a mortgage.”

Michelynn Lafleche

United Way’s Michelynn Laflèche recently appeared on TVO’s The Agenda to discuss precarious employment.

“Individuals in precarious work face many challenges,” says Michelynn Laflèche, United Way’s Director of Research, Public Policy and Evaluation, who recently appeared as a guest speaker on TVO’s The Agenda to discuss this new work reality. “They earn 46 per cent less than those who are securely-employed. They delay having families, are often unable to pay for their children’s extracurricular activities and experience higher levels of anxiety and stress. Precarity impacts the health of individuals and families and the way in which people can contribute to their communities.”

Fixing the problem won’t happen overnight. But solutions for mitigating the impact of unstable work on individuals, families and entire communities are already underway. “Our research, combined with United Way’s influence, was instrumental in bringing about changes to Ontario’s Employment Standards Act by introducing protections around lost wages for precariously-employed individuals,” says Wayne Lewchuk, a co-author of the “It’s More than Poverty: Employment Precarity and Household Well-being” report and a professor in the economics and labour studies department at McMaster University.


“Closing the Prosperity Gap” looks at solutions for reducing income and employment inequality

The findings of this report also helped spark a much larger conversation about how to build a better labour market that works for everyone.  “I think we have to make employers in the government, private and charitable sectors understand what the risks are to families, communities and to businesses,” says Laflèche.  “We need to build a case that helps employers think about how to operational their business in a way that  treats people with dignity and respect and provides the kind of support people need to live a decent life.”

Cause for concern, cause for action

Last week, Matthew Mendelsohn, director of The Mowat Centre, spoke for an audience of United Way donors and partners about the fast-growing problem of precarious employment.

“Precarious” probably isn’t a word you want to associate with your paycheque. But 40% of workers in the GTA and Hamilton are working in jobs that exhibit some degree of precariousness: stringing together short-term contracts, working several part-time jobs instead of a full-time position, or working freelance, among other non-traditional work arrangements. (Traditional employment being full-time, on-going, and usually with benefits.) Some are more vulnerable than others, of course—many freelancers and consultants choose that flexibility. But employment precarity has increased nearly 50% in the past 20 years, and while it’s most prevalent among low-income earners, it’s fast becoming a middle-class issue as well.

As Mendelsohn describes the issue, it’s all about risk: Who bears it, and who takes responsibility for it.

Traditionally, the burden of risk—of an employee falling sick, having an accident, getting laid off—was borne by the employee, the employer and the government. But with the rise of precarious employment and the erosion in the “social contract” between employers and employees, that burden is shifting, in a big way, to individuals. What does all this mean? Essentially, people facing uncertainty are likelier to postpone fundamental life decisions: starting a family, buying a home, etc. More troubling, says Mendelsohn, rates of intergenerational mobility—the assumption that young people will be at least as well off as their parents—has been eroding, throwing into doubt the “Canadian promise” that has been so attractive to newcomers.

Of course, some people prefer non-standard working arrangements—they appreciate the added flexibility in a dynamic economy. The challenge is to implement public policy to make non-traditional working arrangements, well, work better. This means investing in social infrastructure – housing, transit, childcare, recreation, early childhood education—to ensure the burden of risk is once again more evenly shared between government, employers and individuals. Below, Mendelsohn addresses just a few of the realistic public policy responses to the rise of precarious work.

For a really in-depth look at the issue, check out It’s More Than Poverty: Employment Precarity and Household Well-being, a report prepared earlier this year by United Way and Hamilton’s McMaster University. And be sure to share your thoughts or experiences about this emerging economic reality.

Time for solutions: Job insecurity is not inevitable

PEPSO-reportYesterday, at a full-day symposium with McMaster University and the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) research group, United Way Toronto launched the ground-breaking It’s More than Poverty report. Representatives from the private sector, labour, government and non-profit organizations gathered to discuss the growth of precarious jobs—those without benefits and those with uncertain futures.

Confirming the anecdotes

This new report, based on a specially commissioned survey of over 4,000 respondents, confirms what our communities and member agencies knew, anecdotally, five years ago: that precarious work has grown in prevalence; that it impacts workers’ well-being; and that it is more prevalent among recent immigrants and people from racialized groups. The data also shows that the impacts of precarious work are more severe for people with low income, which remains a big concern for all of us. Additionally, we found that precarious work has spread—into all sectors, across the entire GTA and Hamilton region, and among all demographic groups and all income groups.

On some indicators, middle-income earners in insecure employment were even experiencing more challenges than low-income earners in secure employment.

Emerging questions

The report’s counterintuitive findings surprised us, and others. Some of the reaction focused on the issue of choice, in response to the finding that being in precarious work was affecting middle-income individuals and families. Could people earning middle incomes—between $50,000 and $100,000 a year—really be precarious? Wasn’t the kind of work that these earners were doing, like knowledge jobs at colleges and universities, or freelance design and other creative jobs, something they chose to do? Didn’t many of these workers live in households where one partner had a secure job and the other could afford to work on short-term contracts (and did so as part of a chosen lifestyle)?

The answer is split: yes, middle-income jobs can be precarious; and, no, it’s not all about choice. Choice is a complicated issue. We know that many in Toronto cannot choose the opportunities available to them. Indeed, over half of survey respondents employed in insecure work said that they would prefer more secure work. Our data also showed that, if the survey respondent was in a precarious job, their partner was more likely to be in a precarious job, too.

But the real issue for all workers in precarious jobs, whether they choose these jobs or not, is that the conditions in which they are working are harmfully affecting not just the workers, but also their families and their communities. Our labour market is no longer creating enough jobs that are pathways to income and employment security.

Continuing the conversation

As was so energetically discussed yesterday, we (as a society) got here one decision at a time. So the good news is that vulnerability and insecurity are not inevitable: we can escape this growing trend, decision by decision. It will take time, it will take clear ideas on what to do, and it will take a widespread coalition to make the necessary policy and social change, but it is not impossible. Our task, now, is to make this change happen.