Public-Sector Employees in Québec: Fat Cats? Really?

It’s often said that public-sector employees are somehow privileged. That they are fat cats. That their wages are rather exceptional. Actually, some commentators even contend that working for the Québec government is synonymous with phenomenal wages and truly out of the ordinary working conditions.

Let’s be honest: getting a government job is usually pretty good news. For most people, it means relatively stable employment with fairly good pay and interesting benefits. In fact, public-sector employees in Québec form a good chunk of the province’s middle class. In comparison with the planet as a whole and with many people in Québec (the unemployed, welfare recipients, precarious workers, etc.), all in all it’s a comfortable position to be in, agreed. However, do Québec’s state employees really enjoy that many impressive privileges compared to other workers in the province? That’s actually just a biased contention.

Each year, the Institut de la statistique du Québec (ISQ) compares state employees’ pay with that workers holding equivalent jobs in the private sector and in other public administrations. Each year, a serious and detailed report tears apart the preconceived notion according to which state employees are blessed with exceptional working conditions. Same thing this year! (You can see for yourself, it’s available online.)

Salary-wise, the picture is quite clear. Public-sector employees are paid less than everyone else, be they in the private sector, whether unionized or not, or at other public service levels (federal, municipal, etc.). Compared to all the other wage-earners in Québec, provincial state employees’ salary middle class is 12% lower. For $45,000 earnings, that means $5,265 less per year, which certainly has an impact on a budget. In 2009, the gap was 9%, so it’s widening.

Nevertheless, public-sector employees’ benefits are much more advantageous than those of other wage-earners. When they are taken into account, the difference in overall compensation is reduced to 8% (it was 4% in 2009). Hence, even when taking into account their pesky pension plans and group insurances, public-sector employees earn less than people with comparable jobs in the private sector. In fact, in some trades, the situation is highly disadvantageous. For instance, there’s a 34% gap in overall compensation (wages and benefits) between blue-collar workers in the public sector and their equals in other areas of the labour market.

Wages are much higher for non-unionized workers than in the public sector, but their benefits are not as advantageous. All in all, compared to this category only, the public sector has a 7% advantage. However, Québec’s public-sector employees earn 25% less than unionized workers in the private sector.

To conclude, when we look into the issue and go beyond preconceived notions, we realize that public-sector employees’ salaries are a little low, that they have good benefits, but are not is that advantageous a situation compared to other workers in Québec. It’s actually getting worse with time. Fat cats? No. They’re normal wage-earners, getting paid less and less.

This article was written by Simon Tremblay-Pepin, a researcher with IRIS—a Montreal-based progressive think tank. 

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