By Amanda Lorbetski
BELLEVILLE – The minimum wage debate may be a provincial issue, but it’s turning heads locally.
Human-rights and anti-poverty groups are pushing for a minimum-wage hike. Earlier this month, a group called Health Providers Against Poverty asked Premier Kathleen Wynne to up the minimum wage to $14 per hour. There were reports Tuesday that later this week the government will announce a raise in the minimum wage to roughly $11 an hour, retroactive to 2010, to match the rate of inflation.
Ruth Ingersoll, executive director of the Community Development Council of Quinte, says the current minimum wage is forcing a growing number of Belleville residents to turn to social services. She adds that she has seen parents go hungry to feed their children, and families spend up to 70 per cent of their take-home pay on housing.
“You can’t keep paying people so low that they’re scrounging and they absolutely have no money to spend locally. And as we know, a lot of our economy here is consumer-driven,” she said. “It’s going to end up hurting our economy and hurting us locally if something doesn’t change.”Children are often seen as the victims who people want to donate to, Ingersoll says. She added that people tend to forget that people live in households that often need support too.
“There’s not enough jobs, or a lot of the jobs are just minimum wage, or they’re part-time or they’re temporary. So even for somebody to find full-time work making minimum wage is very rare.”
The council’s goal is to bring together the politicians and the business owners who pay wages, she said. The solution the council is proposing is to increase the minimum wage in increments, to avoid hitting small-business owners’ books too hard.
This is an idea that Belleville and District Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Bill Saunders agrees with.
The Belleville chamber has taken the official position of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which is supporting an increase in the minimum wage to reflect the cost of living and the Canadian consumer price index.
The CPI measures increases and decreases in the prices that consumers pay for everyday expenses. The index shows that the amount Canadians paid for shelter increased 1.8 per cent from November 2012 to November 2013. The price of food increased 1.1 per cent.
The Ontario chamber won’t support raising the minimum wage to $14 per hour because it could mean the operating costs of small businesses would surge up to 40 per cent, Saunders said. He adds that matching the cost of living is a win-win for everyone.
“The reason for that is because it’s not a one-time shot. For businesses it’s predictable. No one would expect for a moment that that will fix the issue for folks making minimum wage and living in poverty, but it’s an attempt to at least maintain the status quo,” Saunders said.
“Let’s say we’re in the restaurant industry. I’m a server and you’re the head chef. So I’m making $10 an hour. You’re making $15 an hour and you have more skill and do more things than I do. So now (if the minimum wage were increased,) my wage is $14 an hour. You’re going to go, ‘Boss, how come he is getting $14 an hour and I’m only getting $15 an hour?” So there’s an escalating effect on that as well.”
Michael Allison, co-ordinator of Loyalist College’s second-year business administration program, says when politicians promise to raise the minimum wage it sounds like everyone will benefit, but that’s not the case.
“All of a sudden a lot of people will think, ‘Well that’s pretty great. It makes it easier for me to pay my rent, buy food, that’s good,’ ” he said. But if the minimum wage goes up, businesses “have got to pay a lot more, which means they’re not going to hire as many people. And then it gets worse because then, for example, they’ll have to charge a lot more for their hamburgers, which means people will buy less, which means they need even (fewer employees) now.”
And the downward cycle doesn’t end there, Allison said.
“There’s a lot of people who aren’t working right now, and if you’re not looking for a job, technically you’re not called unemployed. All of a sudden you go looking for a job because (the minimum wage has gone up and) $12 an hour sounds like you could (pay for) child care and do all that good stuff. So now we’ve got even more people looking for jobs and there’s less jobs. So the ironic thing is if you set the minimum wage a little too high, you actually create unemployment.”
But small-business owners like Theresa Markila don’t necessarily see raising the minimum wage as a bad thing.
The owner of the catering company Coffee with Friends, which has a Belleville branch, says she is already paying her employees above minimum wage and she expects them to perform at that level. If the minimum wage were to increase, she says they’d probably each get a raise.
“My belief is if you pay your employees well enough that they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is going to come from, they give a lot back to the business,” she said. “I don’t see them as a cost to be cut. I see them as an asset that we should be nurturing,” she says.