Yukonomist: Inflation versus your wallet

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

Your wallet is in a race with inflation and, lately, your wallet has been losing. Statistics Canada reported that prices in June were 8.1 percent higher than a year before, the biggest annual increase since Michael Jackson’s album Thriller was top of the charts in 1983.

However, things aren’t as bad for many Yukoners as the latest headlines suggest. Workers have been getting raises. Labour shortages have led to lots of overtime. And, earlier in the pandemic, prices even went down for some products.

So let’s look at how fast prices and incomes have risen since before the pandemic. We’ll use data from May 2019 to May 2022, the latest period for which we have detailed income data. And we’ll use Consumer Price Index data for Whitehorse since inflation data for Yukon communities is less detailed.

Over that three year period, the price of a typical basket of goods purchased by a household went up 11.3 percent in Whitehorse. That’s very close to the national average. Shelter and transportation were among the fastest-growing sub-categories. Higher figures for rent, house prices, home heating oil and gasoline clearly show up in the data.

Meanwhile, in the Yukon overall, the average weekly earnings, including overtime, went up 15.6 percent. That’s three points higher than the national average.

So, despite some painful sticker shock in the shops recently, the wallet is slightly ahead of inflation over the last three years for the average Yukon worker.

The key word is “average.” Workers in some industries did better than others. Within each industry, some individual workers will have done better than others. And if you were on a fixed income, your wallet was stuck in the starting blocks.

The Yukon industries where weekly earnings rose especially fast over the last three years include retail and wholesale trade, transportation and distribution, as well as real estate. The latter is no surprise given our housing boom.

Weekly incomes in public administration — most government jobs — grew 13.8 percent. That is 2.5 percentage points more than inflation over the period, meaning that workers in this category enjoyed a boost in their real spending power.

Meanwhile, some industries failed to keep up with inflation. The most surprising is health care and social assistance, where weekly earnings went up only 3.0 percent. That represents an inflation-adjusted wage cut of almost ten percent.

This is very strange after a pandemic where health-care workers were in short supply.

It is possible that the average weekly earnings figures are held down by government hiring more people at the lower end of the wage scale; for example, call-centre workers or reception staff at vaccine clinics. If more experienced staff, who tend to be higher paid, suffered burn out and quit their jobs, this would also contribute to a lower average figure for the industry.

The people who suffered the most from the surge in inflation may not be in the weekly-earnings statistics. These are Yukoners on fixed incomes. Most, but not all, federal and territorial programs are indexed to protect them from inflation. However, this protection is not always complete. The federal Parliamentary Budget Officer reported this June, for example, that time lags in the formula for Old Age Security meant that recipients were losing ground versus inflation.

The averages will also hide big variations within industries. Workers at one organization may get raises while those at another do not. Or there may be differences within organizations between different job types.

So what does all this mean for Yukon families? The answer is that it is time to do the math on your own pay stubs. Have your weekly earnings been keeping up with inflation over the last few years?

It is also worth comparing your base pay versus any overtime you have been getting. The overtime is welcome extra cash, but if the economy slows down in the fall, then you may be getting fewer overtime hours. This means it is important for your base pay to be keeping up with inflation.

The next step after that may be a conversation with the boss.

And if the boss is unwilling or unable to offer pay that keeps up with inflation, it might be worth dusting off your resume while the Yukon still has the lowest unemployment rate in the country.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.