Tuesday, January 09, 2018
A decade ago our older daughter Jocelyn got a degree from Queen's University, then went to college to train as a graphic artist. During that second program she worked at a national chain restaurant (think cluck, cluck) to help pay the bills. It was demanding work where she had to virtually run during peak times, contend with constantly sore feet, and deal with the vagaries of customer demands. She was paid the minimum wage for a server, although she didn't fare badly because of the tips.
She got an internship with a prestigious arts organization which eventually became her place of work (yes, some internships do become paid employment) so she put in her notice at the restaurant. Her co-workers were quite kind, celebrating her opportunity to move on. Some of them were "lifers," women who were old enough to be her mother and even grandmother in one instance. Joc didn't know how they continued doing this demanding and relatively thankless job for so long. We have always been conscientious tippers but the retail and service industry experience of both our daughters gave us a new appreciation of what it must be like for people working at the low end of the wage scale.
When the Ontario government implemented a minimum wage hike to $14 at the beginning of the New Year it set off almost endless conversation and speculation about the effects on the economy. The goal is to boost the minimum to $15 by the beginning of next year which according to some will cripple small businesses.
I have never been an entrepreneur, so I don't want to be overly critical of the challenges they face, and I've heard mom and pop store owners who are genuine in saying that they're living at the margin of viability already. I also know that nearly half of minimum wage earners in Ontario work for larger companies. Some of these companies pay their top execs the wage of one of their workers in the first few days of the year. Not $6000 an hour, but in some instances more than $2,000. Notice how that revelation disappeared from reporting almost immediately? Some of those companies are already withholding breaks and benefits and tips from their low wage employees, an irony given that their establishments depend on people lining up to purchase their fare on breaks.
I've listened to a recruiter for a company with 50+ workers note that they've known this is coming for four years, so why are some employers acting as though this is a bombshell? Some small business owners got out in front of wage increases for business reasons. They came to realize that paying above the former minimum allowed them to retain trained workers and build a loyal and grateful employee base. And we know that Alberta has already moved to a $15 minimum without a dire outcome in what is a recovering economy.
This is a matter of justice it seems to me, despite our addiction to a low-wage economy. We can rightly be concerned about the pittances paid to those who make our stuff offshore. But what about our immediate neighbours who are barely getting by? Several congregations I served had meal ministries and some of the guests were there as the working poor, unable to pay the bills on what they earned. This shouldn't happen in this province, even if I have to pay a bit more.