Opinion

What is Terrace's living wage? Students to find out

A GROUP of University of Northern B.C. social work students is appearing at a City of Terrace council commitee of the whole meeting to give a presentation on a living wage for the city.

Here is a statement about that presentation as prepared by one of  the students, Devin Pollitt.

Most people understand what it feels like to not have enough money to pay for the basic costs of living, let alone get ahead financially.

Frustration, anxiety, hopelessness, despair, and even mental illness are just some of the effects of not having enough to pay for those basic living costs.

The result is often either acute or chronic poverty, followed by reliance on social service programs and funding to provide relief.

In B.C, we are all familiar with what is called the minimum wage.

So what does it mean to be a minimum wage earner in B.C? Well, it means earning $10.25 per hour. It also means earning, at most, $1600 per month, less Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) premiums, Employment Insurance (EI) premiums, and income tax.

What this leaves for the worker is not much at all, especially for two- parent families with children.

For many, this has raised an important question: if the monthly income that a full-time minimum wage worker earns is not enough to pay for basic living costs, how then can the minimum wage be justified?

For many, the minimum wage in B.C is simply not enough and the issue has evolved into what is known as the living wage movement.

Recently, a number of students have been doing research in Terrace to determine what the basic costs of living are for a two-parent family with children.

They have been following the literature and research produced by The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, along with other living wage campaigns within the province, including communities like The Sunshine Coast, Greater Victoria, Kamloops, Regional District of Central Okanagan, Fraser Valley, Qualicum, Williams Lake, and Cranbrook.

From this research, they will calculate what the hourly living wage is for Terrace, and this wage will be based upon basic living costs.

In other words, what it actually costs a two parent family with two children to pay for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, child care, medical service plan premiums, non-medical service plan expenses, parent education, and a contingency fund.

Once this research is complete, these students will be lobbying Terrace city council to vote on the adoption of a living wage policy for city employees, and for the city to encourage their contractors to pay their employees no less than a living wage.

This is not the first time the issue has come across the city council agenda; in 2010 city council made a decision to research what is involved in the city’s adopting of a living wage policy.

Since then, the issue has not been formally addressed.

For many in the community, especially low-income earners, the idea of increased wages is not problematic.

However, many reading this article may be capitalist skeptics who do not see the social and economic utility in paying their employees a living wage, or there may be small business owners who view cheap labour as essential to their bottom line, and there may also be those who reject the idea simply because they do not understand its benefits.

To all three, I would ask that you consider the following points in your decision.

The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives has being doing research on the benefits of paying employees a living wage for years.

Their research has shown that by paying employees living wages, employers, employees, and the community at large benefit in a variety of ways.

For both capitalist skeptics, and small business employers, the first benefit is that of showing a greater degree of ethical (even moral) corporate social responsibility.

Living wage employers also benefit from higher employee loyalty and productivity, lower levels of absenteeism due to illness and mental illness, decreased employee turnover, and cost savings in staff hiring, training, and retraining.

Employees who are paid wages that do not meet those basic living costs are more likely to live in poverty, and those living in poverty are at greater risk of experiencing stress related forms of mental illness (depression and anxiety).

In Canada alone, 25 per cent of disease and injury is due to mental and behavioral disorders, with four per cent to 12 per cent of payroll costs (illness claims) being due to depression and anxiety.

According to the Center for Workplace Strategies for Mental Health, “Mental illness-related disability claims (short-term and long-term) account for up to one third of the workplace claims, equaling approximately 70 per cent of workplace costs and translating to 33 billion dollars to the Canadian economy on an annual basis, while an employee with a previous disability claim that is related to mental illness/disability is almost seven times more likely to have another disability claim related to that illness than someone with no previous disability episode related to mental illness.”

Paying wages that meet those basic living costs fundamentally reduces the likelihood that workers will live in poverty, which helps in the reduction of stress related mental illnesses and lost time at work, which, for the employer, translates as money saved.

Another employer benefit is that by paying employees a living wage, employees are more likely to spend that money in the local economy, which benefits both corporate and small business owners.

These are just some of the ways employers benefit by paying their employees a living wage. The employees themselves benefit by, obviously, getting paid more money, which leads to greater access to benefits and workplace support, reduced stress over unpaid bills and an empty fridge, improved health, greater self-sufficiency, and reduced reliance on social programs (which, may I remind you, are paid for by individual and business tax dollars).

The community benefits by having greater levels of social participation: those who earn more can afford to take their kids to swimming lessons, community events, and social outings.

The community also benefits by having a larger taxpayer base, increased consumer purchasing power, reduced costs of healthcare and social services, and increased local investment.

It must be noted here that in no way am I suggesting that a living wage will eliminate poverty. What I am suggesting is that living wages are one step in the right direction of a poverty reduction strategy.

Considering the above, you may be persuaded that a living wage creates a win-win for the community as a whole, local businesses, and families, or you may be one of the skeptics who are opposed for reasons of your own.

For those of you who are not convinced, I invite you to challenge the idea by looking at the evidence and providing your arguments as to why a living wage is not part of the solution in reducing poverty, increasing the local economy, and creating a healthier community/worker.

If you are one of those persuaded by, or curious about, the arguments for living wages, I urge you to become part of the living wage campaign by continuing to educate yourself about the issue, and to engage/lobby your local Terrace city counselors to adopt a living wage policy.

 

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