By Laura Stovel
The slogan on the button reads, “Work should lift you out of poverty, not keep you there.” How is it possible that someone can work full time – and more – in Revelstoke and still live in poverty? How can a person have two, three or four part-time jobs and still need the Food Bank to get by?
As Catherine Ludgate, Manager of Community Investment at Vancity Credit Union, pointed out, the minimum wage in BC – $10.45 – is the second lowest in the country after New Brunswick, which has a much lower cost of living. In that point she was wrong: New Brunswick’s minimum wage went up to $10.65 in April, giving BC the dubious honour of having the lowest minimum wage in Canada while Vancouver and Victoria are in the top five in terms of cost of living.
“The failure of a living wage is a market response to good public policy,” she said, noting that when the child tax benefit was implemented the living wage was reduced.
Ludgate was speaking at a two-day forum, sponsored by Community Futures, on Understanding the Economics of Poverty Reduction at the Hillcrest Hotel on May 18th and 19th. She was among several speakers who talked about the challenges for businesses and communities paying a living wage and bringing the lowest-paid employees out of poverty. Participants came from throughout the Upper Columbia Valley. (Videos of the speakers are available for viewing at the bottom of this story.)
Revelstoke’s Social Development Coordinator, Jill Zacharias and the Revelstoke Credit Union controller, Michelle Lenzi, have calculated our living wage to be $18.85 an hour. This is just six cents an hour less than the living wage calculated for Greater Victoria. The gap between $10.45 and $18.85 is extreme and could force low-wage workers to make some difficult choices in terms of food, accommodation and participation in the community.
In BC, one in five children is raised in poverty, Ludgate said. When parents have to work more than full time at minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet, they find it difficult to be home for their children, helping with homework and providing other support. Families and children can become isolated as they are less able to participate in organized activities with other children.
Vancity, along with the Revelstoke Credit Union, have committed themselves to being living wage employers. For Vancity, that meant looking at its key suppliers, in addition to its staff. Managers identified the key suppliers that were most likely to have low-paid staff such as janitorial and security services.
“It change the way we procure,” Ludgate said. “So now instead of sending out an RFP (Request for Proposals) for services when it’s time to bid on a new contract we invited all the cleaners to an open house and we talked about our philosophy and our commitment to the living wage. We said, ‘We are not looking for you to take it out of your margins.’ It’s moved us from being across-the-table negotiators to sitting side-by-side and both of us talking about our goals and aspirations. So it’s fundamentally changed our relationship with our contractors.”
Ludgate talked about a security guard at Vancity who often hugs her when she passes by. He told her that he’s looking after his disabled mother and brother and he’s the only one working in his family. Now the family can make food choices. “I didn’t know,” she said. ”We don’t know what’s going on and people’s families.”
The challenges and opportunities for business
The Living Wage for Families Campaign helps employers find ways to achieve a living wage. As the UBC Okanagan Research Team speaking at the event pointed out, for some industries paying a living wage is not difficult, but for others, such as retail and food and beverage services where margins are very slim, reaching a living wage is challenging.
Ludgate stressed that even when employers can’t pay the calculated living wage, they can find ways to help their employees cut costs. “Food and beverage is the hardest industry, no doubt, (especially where there is no tipping) but maybe you allow moms to go home so they don’t have to pay childcare, maybe you have great educational and training supports, maybe you feed folks or provide bicycles. There are lots of other ways to put good quality inputs into people’s lives that’s not the living wage.”
A panel of community employers demonstrated creative ways in which low-wage employers can assist their employees. The employers on the panel were Malcom Bott of Universal Footwear, Sonia Ratté of La Baguette, Steven Cross of Revy Outdoors and – the only fully living wage employer, Angus Woodman of Downie Timber.
Bott described some of the measures they have taken to retain and support good employees in his footwear store. Adult employees start at $15 an hour. After three months in the job, employees receive $100 towards items in the store and an employee discount. After six months, if one of the preceding three months exceeds sales from the same month the previous year, employees receive a “health and wellness” package. And after nine months, when the employee really knows the business, they benefit from profit sharing.
Cross, whose store sells outdoor gear and who has a long history in retail, said, “It’s been a huge frustration all my life that I can’t pay a living wage and yet when I sit down and do the math it just doesn’t work.” He admitted that after almost two years with Revy Outdoors he and his wife have just started paying themselves – out of necessity. Those are the hard facts that employers have to wrestle with.
That said, the Crosses do what they can to help their employees. Full-time staff start at $14 an hour. They are given ski passes, a health trust benefit program and $500 a year in credits towards gear from the store – the employee pays 10% of what he or she buys. They also have helped employees with immigration paperwork.
Ratté of La Baguette talked about the many ways in which she and her partner, Olivier Dutil, keep their employees engaged. They try to get to know their employees so they can work with their strengths and interests, they keep the environment happy and friendly, they show daily appreciation to their staff, they move staff into different roles so they don’t get bored, and allow staff to work four days on and three days off so they have more time for recreation. “We also have the best staff parties,” she said, even taking staff sky diving at one staff party.