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:






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.