April 15th, 2010
In Ontario everyone knows what everyone else’s salary is—that is, if one is in the public sector and earning more than $100,000. Publication of what is commonly called the Sunshine List is a much anticipated annual event, the chance for hard-working citizens to compare their own earnings with others with whom they share the water cooler. Publication of the list is mandatory, an action demanded by the Public Sector Salary Disclosure Act, designed to make Ontario’s public sector more open and accountable to taxpayers.
Other provinces are following suit. British Columbia now mandates an executive compensation disclosure which shows exactly how much senior managers are being paid. Naturally, such lists generate a lot of gossip, buzz, envy, and resentment. Academics are particularly prone to feeling slighted by the revelation of another’s salary. We harbor the ideal that our post-secondary institutions practice pay equity, and that employees are getting paid according to what they deserve and according to terms and conditions governing everyone in the workplace.
But, as academics well know, real life is much messier than that. Despite collective agreements and well-run faculty associations, there is often wide salary disparity at our institutions. In provinces, where there is no necessary salary disclosure, such as in Newfoundland and Labrador, there is a lot of bar talk about who is getting what, and what kind of deal so-and-so might have cut when he first negotiated his rumoured, excessively generous contract. Indeed, the publication of public sector salaries is one way to inhibit speculation and ensure both fairness and the discouragement of gross disparity. If you are negotiating your first full-time university contract then it is helpful to have in hand a table of salaries at higher levels, at least as a gauge of what will or should appear on your career path.
What was particularly startling about this year’s Sunshine List is the revelation that there was a 19% increase in the number of people earning over $100,000 a year in the Ontario public sector. That 6-figure threshold has become the new respectable salary bar for mid-to senior-level academics, a sign that Canadian professors are actually doing quite well by any standard.
The same is not so true in the United States where the economic recession has caused more drastic measures, such as in the State of California where there has been an across-the board salary cut of 10%. I know. I have friends teaching there who are reeling from that cut. Recent data shows that in 2009-10, the average salary of full-time faculty members in US faculties of Medicine, for example, rose only 1.2 percent. That’s the lowest increase ever. Before I came to Memorial I was an assistant professor at the University of Maine in Orono, the central campus in a large network of state campuses. That was my first tenure-track job–a dream fully realized and in a beautiful New England state no less. The chair of my department boasted that I was getting the highest salary of any incoming professor that year, thank you very much, and I should count my lucky stars. I did count those stars, but after a few months paying grotesque electricity bills and trying to make ends meet I realized the stars were too few and way out of reach. I simply could not sustain the same quality of life I had experienced as a graduate student in Canada. That was a sobering lesson, about both how to do better research in advance of signing a contract and how much more vulnerable I was as a US-based academic. About two thirds of the way through my year, when I had run out of strategies for at once keeping my bills down and staying warm in my apartment I realized I would be much better off in the long run returning to Canada. My salary was actually quite pathetic, even with the then much stronger US dollar.
Happy as I was with my Maine department and the great friends I had made so quickly, my big fear was waking up in 10 years in the same bed without enough money to pay for new sheets.
None of us enters the profession with the expectation of becoming rich but after anywhere from 5-8 years as a graduate student you do expect some decent acknowledgment of the apprenticeship. In general, it is much better in Canada. That’s why I returned. That said, today in some recession-hurt provinces—Alberta, Manitoba—professors and administrators have been forced to take furloughs or unpaid work days to help defer huge operating costs. Thankfully, this blog was composed in a ‘have’ province and like almost all of my colleagues I have nothing to complain about. Counting the lucky stars is a lot easier here.
A final note on the issue of the benefits of salary disclosure, women are still earning less than men across the board: about 78 cents to the dollar earned by men for the same work. Education does provide higher incomes for everyone, but women will continue to take home less than their male counterparts as long as collective agreements and terms and conditions of employment fail to recognize the need for more flexible workplace policies. That, to quote the poet, is what a heaven’s for.