Unintended consequences of Bill 124’s public sector wage restrictions during COVID-19

By Senthujan Senkaiahliyan, Smith School of Business at Queen’s
with Christopher Cotton, Queen’s Economics Department and School of Medicine

As the government and society works to address the challenges of COVID-19 pandemic’s Omicron wave, there has been a lot of discussion around the capacity of the healthcare system to deal with the increased number of cases. Much of the public discussion around these issues have focused on well recognized contributing factors such as vaccine hesitancy and the emergence of increasingly-contagious variants. However, there are many other less-discussed factors that have reduced the capacity of the healthcare system to deal with COVID.

Some of Ontario’s policies have contributed to reduced healthcare capacity in this time of crisis. Bill 124 is one of the measures enacted by the Ontario Government to limit wage increases in the public sector. What was first introduced as a fiscally responsible management plan to protect the sustainability of public services has, however, impacted the ability of the health system to respond to staffing shortages and capacity needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bill 124 applies to most organizations under the public sector, including most provincial healthcare institutions. It effectively limits salary and wages increases for public sector workers including healthcare workers. An excerpt from Bill 124 (Article 10 (I)):

“No collective agreement or arbitration award may provide for an increase in a salary rate applicable to a position or class of positions during the applicable moderation period that is greater than one per cent for each 12-month period of the moderation period, but they may provide for increases that are lower.”

This effectively caps annual pay increases to 1%, substantially below Ontario’s annual rate of inflation, which was estimated at 4.9% this past October. This cap is in place for the moderation period of three years starting in 2019.

This legislation means that real wages for healthcare professionals are falling even as the demands of the job and workload are increasing. It is little wonder why Ontario has seen a rising shortage of nurses and other healthcare workers, which some experts have predicted will be `beyond anything we have ever experienced‘ and which likely contributes to the inability of the system to keep up with need.

The labour market constraints have contributed to a mass exodus of nurses either leaving the profession or utilizing their clinical skills in non-bedside roles. The bill was introduced prior to the onset of the pandemic and claims to be investing in a sustainable Ontario however we can see through this graph, that Ontario is well on its way to a severe nursing crisis exacerbated by this bill.

Sustainable health care is the appropriate balance between the cultural, social, and economic environments designed to meet the health and health care needs of individuals and the population without compromising the outcomes and ability of future generations to meet their own health and health care needs. Under Bill 124, the marked increases for the next three years are highlighted for nurses.

Newly graduate nurses are the most inclined to take on bedside roles due to their willingness to get direct patient experience. However, with these wage forecasts for the next three years and no discrepancy in pay between patient facing and non-patient facing roles, new graduates will choose the less burdensome route, which is what we are witnessing in Ontario with new graduates being employed at vaccination centres and in care coordination roles. With every passing year, we will begin to witness a skills gap in which these nurses will not be equipped with the right clinical skills to take on bedside care. Without direct action, such as incentivizing bedside care, prioritizing nursing mental health, and providing adequate support, Ontario is heading towards a very unsustainable healthcare future. 

Senthujan Senkaiahliyan is an MBA and Masters in Artificial Intelligence candidate in the Smith School of Business at Queen’s. He has worked in the healthcare sector since 2017. Christopher Cotton is a Professor at Queen’s with appointments in the Department of Economics, the School of Policy Studies, and the School of Medicine. He has worked on COVID-19 policy since 2020.

Featured photo: Dr. Annalisa Silvestri during the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020. Creative common license, source https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Covid-19_San_Salvatore_09.jpg

The Canadian Government’s pandemic transfers have been generous, but let’s not exaggerate

By Huw Lloyd-Ellis, Queen’s University

In the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business (December 2, 2020), Patrick Brethour suggests that the increase in Ottawa’s transfers to private-sector households during the pandemic so far amounted to $7 for every $1 of income lost.

To calculate this number, the article compares the change in government transfers to the change in primary household income between the first and third quarters of 2020. However, these values from Statistics Canada represent quarterly flows, not stocks, meaning that such an analysis misses the employment losses and transfers in the second quarter, when both values were at their highest levels.

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The Economic Costs of COVID-19 for Ontario: How bad is it so far and how bad could it get?

By Huw Lloyd Ellis, Queen’s University

Huw Lloyd Ellis is a Professor of Economics at Queen’s University. Here, he discusses the new STUDIO model developed by Queen’s University economists and Limestone Analytics for assessing the impact of COVID-19.

We all know it’s bad. COVID-19 and the lockdowns needed to counter it have created a global economic storm whose impact on Ontario since mid March has been more disruptive than any downturn that most of us have seen in our lifetimes. We’ve seen large downturns in the level of employment. A large fraction of those still employed are working from home and many of those still employed were working reduced hours.

Understanding the economic costs in terms of lost production from these adjustments is important for many reasons. Firstly, these costs translate into major losses in household incomes that may never be recouped. These losses are far from equally distributed and depend crucially on where people live and the industries in which they work. Secondly, the resulting loss in the tax base adds an additional strain on government finances over and above those created by increased spending to offset the size and impacts of layoffs and business distress. The ongoing losses in production today represent a permanent loss in economic wealth that will impact our future after-tax incomes for many years.

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The electoral origin of government spending shocks

By Raphaelle G. Coulombe, Queen’s University

The ratio of government expenditure to output fluctuated considerably after WW2. As shown in Figure 1, many countries experienced rapid decreases or increases in the share of central government expenditure in output at different points in time. For example, there were instances of sharp decreases in Canada, Italy, and Denmark since the mid-1990s, while the United States and United Kingdom experienced the opposite trend over that same time period.

Figure 1: Ratio of central government expenditure to output
Figure 1: Ratio of central government expenditure to output
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Shutdown policy ignores economic consequences in order to minimize Covid-19 infections at any cost

By Christopher Cotton

Christopher Cotton, Ph.D., is a Professor of Economics at Queen’s University, where he holds the Jarislowsky-Deutsch Chair in Economic & Financial Policy and is the Director for the John Deutsch Institute for the Study of Economic Policy.

Before deciding whether we should start to reopen the economy, we need to understand what it is that we are trying to accomplish through the shutdown. If the shutdown is intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed, then we have room to start slowly loosening shutdown restrictions today. If, however, our objective is to minimize the number of Canadians that become infected or die from the disease, which seems to be the objective of public health officials today, then the shutdown may need to continue indefinitely.   Read More »

Monetary policy and the term structure of inflation expectations

By James McNeil, Queen’s University

The nominal interest rate can be decomposed into the sum of the real interest rate and expected inflation through an economic relationship called the Fisher equation. While monetary policy typically works by adjusting short-run nominal interest rates, economic theory suggests that it is the real interest rate that influences borrowing and lending decisions. How much of an adjustment to the nominal interest rate passes through to affect the real interest rate – and hence the real economy – will depend on the response of inflation expectations.

Furthermore, central banks may wish to directly influence inflation expectations to avoid falling into a liquidity trap or to achieve additional stimulus when nominal interest rates are exceptionally low. In 2009 the Federal Reserve lowered its policy interest rate to zero, which is considered to be the lower limit, effectively losing its main policy tool. In response, it turned to unconventional monetary policy operations such as forward guidance (promising to keep interest rates low for an extended period of time) and large-scale asset purchase programs (often referred to as Quantitative Easing). If these unconventional policies are able to directly move inflation expectations when short-run nominal interest rates are constrained then the Federal Reserve would have the means to affect real interest rates when its preferred policy tool is not available.Read More »

Dear Florida, Can NY borrow some ventilators? The U.S. needs better coordination of medical equipment across states

By Christopher Cotton and Neil Renwick

Christopher Cotton, Ph.D., is a Professor of Economics at Queen’s University where he holds the Jarislowsky-Deutsch Chair of Economic & Financial Policy and is the Director of the John Deutsch Institute for the Study of Economic Policy. Neil Renwick M.D., Ph.D, is a Clinician Scientist and Head of the Laboratory of Translational RNA Biology at Queen’s University and an Associate Attending Physician at The Rockefeller University Hospital in New York City. 

Last week, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a plea to the rest of the country: “Help New York. We’re the ones hit right now… We need relief. We need relief for nurses working 12-hour shifts. We need relief for doctors. Help us now and we will return the favor.”

This request is based on the fact that states like New York, New Jersey, and Michigan are being hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic now, and are likely to see their apex in the next week or two, while other states are unlikely to reach their peak until later this spring. Today, as New York faces a shortage of health care workers, there are other places in the U.S. with excess medical capacity, where doctors and nurses not yet being pushed beyond their breaking point.

We claim such an argument not only applies to doctors and nurses but also applies to life-saving ventilators as well.Read More »

We Hit the Brakes. So, What Now?

By Thorsten Koeppl

Thor Koeppl is a Professor of Economics and RBC Fellow at Queen’s University. He also serves as a Scholar and member of the National Council and Monetary Policy Council at the CD Howe Institute. 

Imagine you are driving your car on an alpine road.  You see some rocks starting to fall, a rockslide!  What do you do? Slam on the brakes.  Stop.  You take a deep breath and, after a sigh of relief that you kind of dodged it, you think: So, what’s next? How do I get past that rock slide?

This is where we are at in Canada in our response to the current CoVid-19 pandemic.  We brought the economy pretty much to a full stop.  It is fair to say that this reaction will likely save Canadians being fully engulfed in the rock slide.  We yet do not know how big the benefit will be in terms of lives saved or how large the costs will be on the economic side, but we did the right thing.  Act on the side of caution and hit the brakes.

Soon, hopefully, there comes the time to catch a breath and look forward to see how we can navigate the medium-run fall out from the pandemic.  And this is where economists and the way they tend to think can help us a lot.  After all, economists are “social engineers” that deal with problems where individual behaviour needs to be steered in the right direction to achieve better outcomes for society.Read More »

Border Policies, Exchange Rates, and Canadian Retailers

By Beverly Lapham, Queen’s University

The nominal exchange rate between Canada and the U.S. fluctuates considerably over time. These fluctuations affect Canadian retailers in at least two ways. Firstly, exchange rate movements affect retail price differences between the two countries (see [3]). In response to these price differences, consumers travel across the U.S.-Canada border to purchase goods in the country with lower prices. This is illustrated in the figure below which shows that nominal exchange rates are correlated with cross-border travel by Canadians. Hence, through travel responses, Canadian dollar appreciations tend to decrease demand, revenue, and profits for Canadian retailers. Secondly, because Canadian retailers often use imported inputs, movements in exchange rates may cause fluctuations in retailers’ costs. Thus, Canadian dollar appreciations tend to decrease costs and increase profits of Canadian retailers. My research with co-authors estimates the effect of exchange rate fluctuations on heterogeneous Canadian retailers’ revenues and profits and examines the impact of changes in border policies on those relationships.[1][2]

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Queen’s Economics and Psychology Departments Jointly Welcome Dr. Anita Tusche

By Eliane Hamel Barker and Ardyn Nordstrom, Queen’s University

tusche_foto_caltech2017Last November, the Economics and Psychology departments at Queen’s University were pleased to welcome Dr. Anita Tusche as assistant professor and Queen’s National Scholar. The Queen’s Economics Department is delighted to be welcoming , and would like to take this opportunity to introduce the Queen’s community to Dr. Tusche’s work. Before joining Queen’s, Dr. Anita Tusche completed her PhD in Psychology in Berlin, Germany and continued with Postdoctoral research at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and then the California Institute of Technology. Most of Dr. Tusche’s research is in the exciting new field of neuroeconomics, which is at the intersection of behavioral economics, psychology, neuroscience and computational modelling. At the core of her research is the aim to understand the mechanisms that drive people’s differences in decision making by using computational models on data collected from computer experiments, eye-movement measurements to determine what people pay attention to, and functional and structural brain data.

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