The opposition has called it an attack on the province’s most vulnerable, while labour groups have seethed. But the Ford government’s decision to delay a second increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour from $14 has earned the support of local businesses and even some minimum wage earners in the region as well.
Proponents have argued that businesses need time to absorb the cost of 2018’s hike, when the minimum wage was raised to $14 from $11.60 – a 21 per cent hike in the span of a single year. Under the previous Liberal government’s plan, the minimum wage was proposed to be raised by another dollar as of Jan. 1, 2019; the new Progressive Conservative administration has put that one hold.
Along with the minimum wage freeze, the government’s Making Ontario Open for Business Act nullifies most of the employee gains set out in the Liberals’ Fair Workplaces Better Jobs Act (Bill 148), including emergency leave provisions, workplace scheduling, on-call and notification periods, among others. The wage issue is the most prevalent, however.
“For the most part, I don’t think everybody was adamantly opposed to a change in minimum wage,” suggested Art Sinclair, vice-president of the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce. “It was just the speed and the increase that was the overall concern we certainly heard from our members over the last two years.”
The point was echoed by Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Mike Harris, who said holding the minimum wage at $14 until 2020 would allow businesses to “catch up” to the sudden increase.
“We’ve been consulting with small businesses, medium sized businesses, large employers all across the province,” said Harris. “And after hearing from employers, when we’re talking about a [21 per cent] increase in minimum wage in a very short time period, it was directly impacting employers to be able to continue providing good jobs for employees. There were a lot of businesses that were closing. There were a lot of people that were getting laid off due to the increase in minimum wage.”
The province will be holding the minimum wage at $14 until October 2020, after which it would be indexed to inflation.
“What that does is it will still provide an increase in minimum wage, but it will also allow for employers to be able to meet those specific employment demands,” said Harris.
However, the current $14 an hour wage and even the former target of $15 both still fall short of a living wage in Waterloo Region, estimated at $16.10 an hour. The living wage, defined as the rate a full-time worker needs to earn to cover basic expenses, is calculated yearly based on the Canadian Living Wage Framework.
While the PC government’s minimum wage falls short, Harris noted that the government’s intent was to tackle the cost of living itself, and spur on more business and better job opportunities. By repealing the Green Energy Act, and blocking initiatives like cap-and-trade and a federal carbon tax, Harris said the provincial government was lowering the cost of living for Ontarians by decreasing taxation.
“Between being able to tie things to inflation, between the cost of consumer goods going down and the availability of employment – creating good jobs for people. And we’re not just talking about minimum-wage jobs, we’re talking about people that are going to be able to move away from a minimum wage job that may not have been available to them previously.
“This all translates into that living wage,” he added.
For some workers, the prospect of not seeing a one dollar increase in the minimum wage was a secondary concern to the cost of living.
“I wouldn’t say it makes much difference,” said a minimum-wage earner at a local eatery who did not wish to be identified. “If wages were increased, everything like groceries or rent would increase.”
Samantha Martin, an employee of another local establishment earning $14.75 an hour, questioned the impact of the one-dollar increase. She expected her wage would be increased after a three month probation period at work, but noted she still lives paycheque to paycheque.
“But I’m already going to be making that in three months. So does it benefit me? No, not really,” said Martin of the $15 target. Even if the minimum wage hike increased her own wages, she was dubious about the benefit to her, especially if she was bumped into a higher tax bracket. “They need to lower the cost of living, and then they can talk about raising the minimum wage.”
A third employee spoken to at another business said the change from $11.60 to $14 this year was already substantial enough. The employee noted that the change happened around the time she returned to work from maternity leave.
“To me, it’s quite the increase already,” she said.
Harris noted that the Progressive Conservative government was looking to move Ontarians away from a “minimum- wage economy” through their policies, by focusing on creating job opportunities. It’s a strategy that could pay off in the long haul, but asked about those people currently making $14 and struggling to get by – those who could benefit from even the meager $1 an hour increase – Harris pointed to the cost living decreases the government was pushing.
“I think we’ve already shown leadership with that being able to decrease the provincial portion of the income tax will help make up some of that difference for Ontarians,” said Harris. “So we are taking steps to make sure that we help respect the people that are working minimum wage, but we want to see them move forward with their careers.”
Whether the PC government’s direction will benefit minimum-wage workers, and the province as a whole, will be determined with time and data. In the meantime, as the minimum wage holds for another two years, those hoping to see their wages rise will have to bargain with their employers, or seek new employment opportunities.
Those in the townships hoping to do the latter can find support through Woolwich Community Services, for instance.
“What Woolwich Community Services does is offer a variety of options to those seeking employment,” said Leigh-Anne Quinn. “We have a job board that lists local jobs, we have computers that are available for the general public to use when job searching, and we provide free faxing and photocopying services for job purposes.”
Professional coaching is also available by drop-in or appointment, while the WCS’s services are open to anyone, including those already employed.
“We have a career work coach from Conestoga College’s employment program into our office once every two weeks for job seekers who are looking for additional assistance writing resumes and cover letters,” said Quinn.