Living wage proponents look to spark national movement with pay increases

TORONTO – Earlier this year, Charlie Vanderpol’s hourly wage — along with many of her colleagues — jumped a couple of dollars. For the Muskoka Brewery’s retail store employee, the raise meant she could start saving for renovations on her house in Bracebridge, Ont.

Her employer boosted wages for about half of its roughly 120 workers as part of a commitment announced late last month to pay everyone a living wage.

Muskoka Brewery is one of more than 200 Canadian companies recognizing that minimum wage may not be enough and new measures might be necessary to help the country’s working poor. Proponents say it not only helps people make ends meet, but can also benefit businesses and their communities.

Living wage is typically calculated by determining the net hourly wage a person needs to pay for necessities and modest social activities (like movie tickets) for a family with two working parents and two young children in certain communities.

In Toronto, for example, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives determined that hourly wage is $18.52 compared to the province’s $11.25 minimum wage. In Vancouver, the Living Wage for Families Campaign said it’s $20.64, more than $10 above British Columbia’s minimum wage.

The living wage rate in the Muskoka region north of Toronto, where Muskoka Brewery is located, is expected to be finalized in the fall, said Kelly Watson, the company’s director of people and development. But she said she expects the brewery is already paying close to what the living wage will be.

Vanderpol recalled feeling relieved and excited when the brewery told its employees of its living wage initiative.

“It really relieves a lot of stress in your life,” she said.

Muskoka Brewery is among more than 200 employers in Ontario, B.C., Saskatchewan and Alberta that have pledged to pay their employees a living wage, according to Living Wage Canada.

Tom Cooper, co-ordinator of the Ontario Living Wage Network, calls the living wage “a win-win-win.”

Happier, more relaxed employees result in increased productivity, lower turnover and less sick time used, he said.

It’s something Watson says she’s noticed at the brewery.

“You’re really allowing that employee’s family to live a much healthier, more sustainable lifestyle, and that resonates when they come into work because then they’re able to focus on work more and be more productive and engaged,” she said.

The shift to a living wage can also boost a community’s economy, Cooper said, as workers are likely to spend some of their extra income on local goods and services.

Still, it can be difficult to convince businesses to increase paycheques at the expense of their bottom line.

One of the biggest challenges, Cooper said, is when an organization boosts all their employees’ pay to a living wage in one go. The network sometimes suggests a staggered approach — for example, making the change first for full-time employees and then including part-timers a year later.

Cooper said he hopes the calls for a living wage grow louder across Canada.

“I think living wage needs to become a national movement,” he said.

For that to happen, more evidence is needed to show businesses how the pay bump can benefit them, said Todd White, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, which took the living wage pledge several years ago.

Cooper’s network is working on what he says will result in “an air-tight case.” Along with two universities, the network has started to gather feedback from the businesses that have implemented a living wage so far, as well as their employees. Results are expected this fall and early next year.

Meanwhile, the school board is working with its local living wage chapter to potentially study whether a living wage income can impact students’ academic performance.

“So that’s, I think, the next step … really proving the benefit, the benefits and the social-economic impacts on all those involved.”


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