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Living wage movement sees some growth in the area

Bruce Taylor is the president of Enviro-Stewards, a certified living wage employer in Elmira. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]

The living wage movement has gained considerable momentum in Waterloo Region and in communities across the province. Spurred on by local community groups and businesses, from Brantford and Chatham to Halton, Windsor and Simcoe, more and more employers are seeing the benefits of providing a living wage.

While very much a locally driven movement, these groups are partnering together to create a single, province-wide living wage program that will allow any business in Ontario to become a certified living wage employer.

“We came together to really create some consistency with living wages across the province,” explains Anne Coleman, an employer program manager with the Ontario Living Wage Network (OLWN), a collection of the province’s living wage organizations, and a volunteer on the Waterloo chapter’s steering committee.

“Both with the living wage calculation but also with an employer certification program.”

As the program manager for the OLWN, Coleman helps businesses take the steps needed to become registered living wage employees.

Unlike a minimum wage, which is legally mandated, a living wage is represents the minimum a fulltime employee would need to earn to cover his or her family’s basic expenses. In Waterloo Region, that wage was calculated at $16.10 an hour for 2018, above the recently increased minimum wage of $14. In Toronto, by contrast, the last available numbers from 2015 set that wage as $18.52.

What actually constitutes a living wage will vary greatly from community to community, depending on factors like housing prices and rent, the availability of government subsidies and programs such as child benefits, which makes the program difficult to adopt universally.

To that end, Coleman explains the OLWN is creating a set standard that will allow any community to calculate what their living wage is. Currently, there are 15 communities in Ontario that have their living wages listed with the OLWN, while three more are in the process of calculating their local living wage.

“Our goal is to have all communities across the province release their living wage rates at the same time each year,” says Coleman. That will not only allow employers and employees to get valuable information on what a living wage would be in their area, but also allow businesses to register as living wage employers under the same set of standards.

“The idea is that we wanted to make sure that an employer in Waterloo Region was being certified and recognized in the same way as an employer in, for example, Muskoka or Kingston,” says Coleman.

In Waterloo Region, the living wage movement has grown considerably since it first started in 2014. Back then, there were 10 groups certified as living wage employers, says Coleman, but the number has since increased to 55 and counting.

For Brent Zorgdrager, CEO of Kindred Credit Union, a certified living wage employer in Elmira, the fiduciary case for paying a living wage to their employees is abundantly clear.

“For ourselves, with our own employees, why wouldn’t we want to have employees who are paid a living wage, who can think about serving our customers … without having to at the same moment figure out, ‘Where am I going to get the money for dinner? How am I going to afford a dental appointment for one of the kids? An optometrist appointment?’

“It’s great to put service staff in front of our customers who don’t have to worry about the necessaries in life. And I don’t think that just applies to banking, I think that applies to many industries,” says Zorgdrager.

Kindred was one of the early supporters of the local living wage movement, and this year contributed $10,000 to help fund Coleman’s role as an employer program manager, which in turn will help the movement spread across the province.

“It’s a great news story in growth in Waterloo Region and if we can have it also take root in other communities throughout Ontario, we can magnify the impact this has on, not just the employees, but their families, the well-being of their children and their just overall health and wellness,” said Zordrager.

Bruce Taylor, president of the Elmira-based Enviro-Stewards, another certified living wage employer, agrees. Beyond the moral case, he notes that paying a living wage upfront allows communities to avoid much greater expenses in the longer term.

“It’s not right if both parents work full-time and still need to take advantage of a food bank because they can’t cover their [expenses]. So paying a living wage is a way of internalizing costs that some others externalize,” he says.

Conversely, people earning below a living wage are more likely to require social assistance and welfare, which essentially transfers and magnifies the expense from the employer to the taxpayer.

Anyone interested in learning how they can become certified as a living wage employer, or what steps they would need to take to get there, can visit www.livingwagewr.org, says Coleman, as well as reach out to her. She adds that besides businesses, governments too can value greatly by adopting the living wage program.

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