Would a few extra dollars an hour change lives for the better?
The previous Ontario Liberals seemed to think an extra $2.40 an hour would do just that.
In January, minimum wage earners received a substantial increase to $14 an hour. The Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, known as Bill 148, brought the change forward.
The act was passed last November and also made other changes in policy related to sick leave, holidays and equal pay for equal work.
Small and large business owners and employees alike are adjusting to the changes, but it’s unclear just how much difference the increase has made for either party.
Mishka Balsom, president of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce in Niagara, Ontario said some chamber members’ reaction to the increase was to close an hour or two earlier than they normally would, and schedule shifts differently.
“I think it’s almost premature to say what the impact will be because we are missing the data to say what it will be,” she said.
While Ontario and Canada currently has a robust economy overall, Balsam says it’s hard to look at one issue in isolation of others. Poverty, availability of affordable housing, child care and transit are all factors in the health of an economy, she says. The next 12 months, and beyond will be crucial to watch how these changes take hold and shape the economy.
“We need a more complete picture. I honestly believe we must wait for six [to] nine months to see anything. The best evaluation of the impact will be in two to three years from now,” she said.
Working from pay cheque to pay cheque to support a family
Sasha Ley wakes up before the sun rises to get ready for work.
Still groggy, and rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Ley manages to get dressed and squeeze in a few minutes to make a hot cup of coffee to go, on her way out the door to catch the bus to work. The St. Catharines resident uses public transit to commute about three hours a day to and from her job at a Burlington grocery store.
The journey to and from work each day leaves her exhausted and doesn’t leave a lot of time to spend with her husband and young daughter.
Ley never imagined she’d be working where she does when she was an optimistic and industrious university student.
Even with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and diplomas in accounting and educational assisting, she hasn’t been able to land a good, full-time job with fair pay and benefits in Niagara that’s in her field. While she earns $21.50 an hour and is guaranteed to work at least 32 hours a week, Ley’s husband works part-time so he can stay home with their two-year-old instead of paying for daycare, which can be costly.
The couple manages to make ends meet by living a frugal lifestyle — They rent a two-bedroom apartment, take public transportation and don’t carry any debt.
But Ley can’t think about having spare change in the bank to save for a rainy day, never mind saving for her future.
“How do we save for things like retirement when we can’t even save for a house?”
Ley says her family didn’t notice a difference when minimum wage went up.
“I received a 30 cent raise this year. Minimum wage earners received a $2.40 [raise]. But the cost of rent, hydro, and commuting have all risen,” she said.
“My increase per year amounts to about $560, but my cost of living has increased well over $1,000 with the new minimum wage.”
Raising minimum wage isn’t enough, she says, because it doesn’t take away the worry of what happens when she gets sick or doesn’t have enough hours at work to pay the bills.
“You need job security in knowing you will have enough to pay the bills, cover rent, buy healthy food choices and be able to put some money away for savings.”
While she is guaranteed at least 32 hours per week, she says she has noticed her employer trying to cut corners where possible.
“I do see my employer trying to expect more work, and cross training to use fewer hours overall.”
Making minimum wage work
Richard Florio works full-time stocking products at a big box store in Niagara to pay the bills.
The 31-year-old old is no stranger to the job market in the region, having worked several different jobs since graduating from high school.
He has done everything from farming to customer service, management and even self-employment.
In his experience, he says there’s a lot of work in Niagara if you know where to look, but there are also a lot of other people looking for employment, so the competition is stiff.
Florio has noticed there always seems to be ‘a dip’ in retail work after the New Year that doesn’t increase until May.
He says he’s glad to see the minimum wage go up because it does make a difference for him.
“Inflation increases at a regular pace, and so should minimum wage. This last increase was a result of the government not paying attention to the inflation and having to catch up to it in a drastic way.
Living on $14 an hour isn’t easy, but the increase has been a huge help,” he said.
He manages to live a comfortable life. He makes his own coffee at home instead of purchasing a hot cup each day on the way to work.
With his pay cheques, he’s able to afford the basics: a mortgage on a small house that he shares with his family, utility bills, groceries and gas for his car.
But can he save for his retirement or even a vacation?
The St. Catharines resident says those things are a possibility, but only if minimum wage continues to increase, or he manages to find a better job.
“I believe [the increase] will help the most vulnerable of the workforce. There aren’t that many jobs that pay well enough to live on,” he said.
“In the past, a family could live off one income, but now even two is a struggle. The increase will help families live better and be able to afford things better.”
Making changes to keep the lights on
Rachael, who asked that her last name not is used, has been working in the restaurant industry for a decade.
The Niagara Falls resident works as a manager and waitresses for a family-run restaurant with about 20 employees.
She said staff members’ hours were reduced, some shifts were eliminated and there was a “small price increase,” to compensate for January’s wage hike.
Rachel said the cost to run the business have changed dramatically due to the minimum wage increase.
The cost to keep the lights on, the cost of products¬ everything has increased.
“We’ve noticed consistent supply price increases and bill increases,” she said.
“I think this increase should have been a gradual increase, like what was done previously. This big of an increase has the potential to shock the system.”
Rachael believes minimum wage will never match the cost of living because as minimum wage increases, it seems the cost of living does too.
“The wage increase put pressure on me to return to school. If I was going to be getting paid at least $14, I wanted a future career with it too.
Also, putting that much of an increase on minimum wage has created a glass ceiling for promotions for great workers,” she said.
“Living wage is constantly changing. There is no magic number for me, it’s all about someone being able to live within their personal means.”
Frustration over the increase
An apprentice, ‘Steve,’ who asked that his real name not is used to protect himself from receiving backlash from speaking on the subject, is training to become a full-fledged plumber.
Like anyone else, there are both good days and bad, but each day brings new challenges to keep him on his toes.
He works with a family-run business in Niagara, learning from a plumber with more than 30 years of experience.
Steve decided in his late twenties to go back to school to find better employment and chose to become a plumber because of its potential in the trades and compensation.
When he learned about the wage hike, he was angry.
“I do not feel it will improve the quality of life for me or others as other values will also go up. I feel like many companies cannot afford this. People start at minimum wage for a reason, it doesn’t give young people an incentive for advancement,” he said.
In response to the increase, Steve says a few suppliers and subcontractors he works with put out notices that the prices would be going up to support the cost of the minimum wage.
While returning customers continue to use his services, Steve says it is harder to attract new customers’ when they ask his rates.
If there were to be another wage increase, Steve says he won’t see an increase in his own pay- which is a bit above minimum wage.
He finds it frustrating when someone working at a coffee shop, for example, makes the same amount an hour or close to what an apprentice plumber might make.
He believes minimum wage jobs exist for a reason- as a stepping stone for students, or people just starting out- not a permanent job.
“It is already hard when customers do not want to pay for an apprentice plumber to come to their house. They feel they do not want to pay for someone who isn’t fully trained. Now an employer must pay an apprentice more, and have more customers (or potential) be upset,” he said.
A closer look at Niagara’s economy
Is it all doom and gloom for Niagara’s economy? Statistics paint an overall positive picture for Ontario’s employment. According to stats from the latest Labour Market Report, published in March of this year just three months after the increase, the province’s economy is on an upswing.
Over the first three months of 2018, employment in Ontario increased by 75,300 net jobs for adults 25 years and older compared to a year earlier when the Ontario Labour Market reported January job losses were the highest recorded since January 2009.
Conversely, while part-time jobs suffered a decline by 59,300 at the beginning of the year, full-time jobs increased by 8,500.
The report also states that some of the province’s youngest income earners, people aged 15 to 24, who saw the loss of 4,600 jobs ahead of the minimum wage increase, were hit even harder with the loss of 25,800 jobs when the wage increase rolled out in January.
Looking further at the data, employment changes by occupation were highest in management, at an increase of 115,100 jobs, and business, finance and administration at 51,800 jobs. Sales and service and health sectors felt job losses of 27,000 and 27,700, respectively.
It’s usual to see drops in employment at the beginning of the year, says Adam Durant, research and project manager for the Niagara Workforce Planning Board (NWPB).
The NWPB, a non-profit, non-government organization that provides research, data and analysis on the labour market, released its Employer One Survey on April 11.
The goal of the annual survey is to gather a snapshot of employers’ perspective on the state of the local labour market. Topics included in the online survey cover industry type, labour availability, skills alignment and overall opinion on the local labour force.
The NWPB collected responses from over 240 employers across Niagara.
Slightly over 75 per cent of participating employers reported hiring in the last year, with almost 45 per cent of that number rating the available labour in Niagara as either, ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. Among the respondents, the skills most valued in employees were notably the soft skills, such as a solid work ethic, customer service abilities, and teamwork.
“We need to wait for more data,” Durant says, “but the data we have from this survey is telling me what one would expect. Historically, Niagara’s economy slows down in the winter. Taking the seasonal shifts into account, employment seems to be on the uptick, not the down tick in Niagara.”
If minimum wage increases were driving people out of employment in Niagara, then it should stand to reason that the changes Niagara is seeing from the small snippet of information provided by the survey, the data would be worse than it was last year.
“All of the changes we’re seeing this year in terms of employment and the labour force, where numbers are down for full-time employment, they’re not down nearly as much as they were down this time last year.”
What is next for Niagara?
Statistics can paint a picture of economic upswings, but numbers on the page don’t reflect experience.
They won’t reflect the hardships of early morning GO trains to work in different cities or interview after interview for full-time positions. They won’t reflect the disdain salaried employees, who won’t see an increase in their income, will feel now that their labour is valued the same as a minimum wage worker.
The NWPB reports also that those with University education saw an increase in jobs of 83,7000 new jobs while people who had only high school education saw a loss of 30,500 jobs and those with less than a high-school education saw 27,000 jobs disappear.
The ability for those with a high-school education or less to attain employment while the cost of post-secondary education skyrockets risks pricing people out of gainful employment and can heighten resentments already brewing in Niagara, home to two post-secondary institutions.
Optimism for Niagara’s employment future is important and more data may continue to drive the region’s economic uptick.
However, the divide between those with education and those without continues to widen and, factoring in increases in the costs of living as housing prices and utility costs are also on a disproportionate upswing, it’s unclear whether or not the efforts of Niagara employers and Ontario legislators are enough to keep Niagara optimistic.