Terrace council asked to adopt ‘living wage’ policy

Topic up for debate at tonight's city council meeting

MOST people are reminded of the higher costs associated with northern living every time they fill up at the pump. Just how high that cost is has been calculated in a recent study by 10 students from the local UNBC campus enrolled in the social worker program.

If their numbers are accurate, living in Terrace isn’t that much cheaper than Vancouver, which came as a surprise to at least one city councillor at a presentation made by the students at city hall.

The students, using a formula based on those created for other such programs, determined a living wage of $17.65 (before tax) based on a 35-hour work week.

This is the minimum hourly wage that two parents must each earn to support a two-child family in Terrace.

Social worker and UNBC student Devin Pollitt was accompanied by BC Association of Social Workers president Robert Hart at  the   Terrace city council committee of the whole meeting Feb. 28 to push for the city to adopt a living wage policy.

It would mean the city would not pay its own workers less than what is determined by the living wage formula and not hire any companies who pay their own workers less than that wage.

Following the lead of organizations such as A Living Wage for Families and The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Pollitt and his classmates used a formula to determine what Terrace citizens need to eke out a modest living.

Typical expenses calculated for a four-person family includes one vehicle, one bus pass, full childcare for one child, half a day childcare for the other, medical coverage, a modest leisure allowance, and some educational costs for the parents.

At $17.65 an hour, Terrace’s living wage is $1.49 less than Metro Vancouver, whose living wage recently clocked in at $19.14 based on the same formula.

Taken on a yearly scale, the living wage for a two child family in Terrace is $59,688 (minus tax and transfer payments).

That’s what they need to get by without falling into debt and making sacrifices to core necessities, explained Pollitt.

If the same family’s two wage earners were to earn the minimum wage of $10.25 their salary would be $41,318, with tax deducted.

After adjustments that’s over $15, 000 below the living wage.

Pollitt likened this situation to a small business where a deficit of $15,000 would cause significant alarm.

The living wage argument states that with increased salaries workers are happier, more productive and less prone to psychological disorders linked to stress which are a burden to social infrastructure, Pollitt and Hart argued.

They are also less liable to run into legal or other trouble.

New Westminster, B.C. was the first municipality to adopt a living wage policy, and many other cities and companies in North America and Britain are also taking up the challenge, Pollitt said.

Pollitt submitted a petition of 200 signatures calling for the City of Terrace to make this commitment.

Following the presentation, councillor James Cordeiro questioned whether a two child family really needs $59,688 to get by, and wondered if the city shouldn’t focus instead on programs to help people budget better.

“It all comes down to how you spend and manage those limited resources” Cordeiro said.

Hart, who is also the UNBC social work program instructor who assigned this living wage project to Pollitt and the other students in the class, countered that poor people are just as good as wealthy if not better at administering their finances, they just face fewer options.

City councillor Stacey Tyers underlined the difference between living and  surviving on a minimum wage, saying that a financial cushion makes it easy to live cheaply for short periods of time, however with no fallback plan a family will quickly become destitute if they encounter misfortune.

Tyers went on to praise the findings put forth by the UNBC students.

“I do question the numbers,” city councillor Brian Downie said of the study, questioning if living in Terrace could really approximate Vancouver in terms of cost.

“I struggle with the idea of a social engineering approach,” Downie went on to say.

A commitment to only do business with other living wage employers would mean severing procurement agreements with the big box stores who pay less, he said. “Box stores won’t be influenced by our policies.

In response Pollitt said that according to the statistics, Terrace is currently subsidizing foreign-owned chains through taxes to pay for poverty-related healthcare and retraining costs as well as spikes in crime spawned by a society with an underpaid workforce.

“It’s like tobacco companies using us to subsidize their health care costs,” Hart added.

Marylin Davies suggested that small business might suffer under a living wage regime, with employers slashing positions in order to keep up with higher wages.

However the evidence presented suggests that better paid workers are more productive, Pollitt said.

City councillor Bruce Bidgood concluded the discussion by speaking out in support of the living wage proposal put forth to council.

Bidgood’s recommendation was to have the city’s administration go through their procurement lists and  employee salaries to what roles would be affected under the living wage policy.

The issue is up for more discussion at tonight’s formal city council meeting.