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Should the salary threshold be raised for public employees who make the Sunshine List?

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Ontario's provincial Sunshine List has remained an excellent example of public sector transparency and accountability since it was established in 1996.

Officially titled the Public Sector Salary Disclosure (PSSD) Act, this list publicizes the names and salaries of public officials in Ontario who earn salaries of $100,000 or more.

A lot has changed since then, though, and a $100,000 salary today is quite different from the same salary 27 years ago.

Many believe that a recalibration of the Sunshine List is long overdue. Below, I’ll explain why today’s Sunshine List doesn’t hold the same relevancy as it once did, and what it could mean if Ontario decides to change the threshold.

What is the Sunshine List?

The Sunshine List mandates the disclosure of names and salaries of public sector employees earning over a certain amount ($100,000 in Ontario and other provinces) annually. This transparency tool aims to hold public entities accountable, ensuring taxpayers know where their dollars are going.

It covers a wide range of roles, such as:

  • Teachers
  • Doctors
  • Elected officials
  • Police officers

Aside from keeping individuals accountable to the taxpayers that support them, the list also offers a snapshot of overall government spending on human resources.

Accounting for inflation

While the passing of the PSSD Act was initially viewed as groundbreaking, its $100,000 threshold doesn’t exactly fit today's economic context.

For one, inflation has significantly reshaped the value of a dollar since the Sunshine List's inception in 1996 in Ontario.

While inflation fell from a peak of 8.1 per cent in June 2022 to 3.8 per cent this September, the purchasing power of the Canadian dollar is nowhere near as much as it was in the 1990s.

While $100,000 was once considered a substantial salary, if we adjust what that salary looked like in 1996 versus today, using the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, it would equal $177,890 – a 77.89 per cent increase.

With that in mind, a public official earning $100,000 isn’t considered to be nearly as high of an income by today’s standards as compared to 1996. 

Other provinces with Sunshine Lists

While Ontario seems to get the most attention in the headlines, other provinces – all except Quebec and Prince Edward Island – have public sector salary disclosure acts, too. Along with Ontario, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador currently disclose those making $100,000+.  

The bar for making the sunshine list in Manitoba and Saskatchewan is lower, with Manitoba disclosing salaries for public sector workers making $85,000+, and Saskatchewan at $75,000+.  

New Brunswick supplies a list of all public servant employee salaries. An example can be seen here

In terms of Canada's three territories, none of the Northwest Territories, Yukon or Nunavut are required to disclose salaries of public servants. The closest NWT comes is publishing an online database of salary ranges for public service workers.

Changing salaries over time

Public sector salaries, like the broader economy, have seen their share of ebbs and flows. Between 1998 and 2021, Canada's average hourly wagesgrew from $24.47 to $30.03.

Notably, the largest spikes in average earnings often coincided with economic downturns, such as the 2008/2009 recession and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, with wages rising due todisproportionate job losses among lower-paid employees​​.

Benefits of adjusting the Sunshine List threshold

Some of the potential benefits of adjusting the $100,000 income threshold for the Sunshine List could include:

  • Updating the threshold to match inflation and salary changes ensures the list remains a meaningful tool for public sector transparency
  • A higher threshold could mean fewer names, simplifying the list
  • It allows the list to highlight truly high salaries, which might be more relevant for public scrutiny

That being said, not everyone agrees.

In March 2016, Premier Kathleen Wynne defended keeping the $100,000 limit, stating it's still a significant amount for many, and maintaining that the threshold remains relevant​.

Potential alternatives

Some believe that a $100,000 salary threshold for the Sunshine List is a little too simplistic. Instead, Ontario could implement other alternative solutions for measuring Sunshine List eligibility and holding its members accountable.

Salary bands

A salary band (or salary range) defines the range of pay rates for different positions within an organization. Instead of specifying an individual’s single fixed salary, a salary band sets a minimum and maximum pay level for a particular job or job category.

This approach would keep moderate transparency intact while addressing privacy concerns.

Context of responsibilities

In addition to updating the income threshold for the list, it could also include details about the roles and responsibilities of those listed. This would give more context to taxpayers so they could better understand the services that they’re paying for.

Detailed compensation reports

While this would involve more paperwork, the Sunshine List could include in-depth reports regarding the income of its top-paid members. For example, it could include additional analysis that compares public sector pay to the private sector, offering a broader view of overall salary fairness.

How often should the Sunshine List be revised?

Perhaps the most straightforward way to keep this list relevant is to simply update the $100,000 mark and adjust it based on current economic conditions. If Ontario adjusts the list for inflation every decade, then the list would still remain relevant and focused on truly high earners.

For now, though, the list will continue to include every public sector employee in Ontario who earns at least $100,000 or more.

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