Let’s Get Real About the Minimum Wage Increase

Whether you love it or loathe it, I think we’d all agree that there’s been a lot of spilled ink in the last week over the increased minimum wage. Or whatever the social media equivalent of spilled ink is.

Perhaps one of the most divisive moments in the debate came when premier Kathleen Wynne picked a fight with Ron Joyce Jr., billionaire heir of Tim Hortons, in the Toronto Star (though, to be fair, he sold his stake in the company 15 years ago).

Mr. Joyce decided to pass on the new costs of paying his employees $14/hour at some of his restaurant franchises to, you guessed it, his employees. He did so in the form of unpaid breaks and decreased benefits. An act that added insult to injury given his tremendous personal wealth.

In response, Ms. Wynne postured herself against Mr. Joyce, calling him a “bully.” She was right. But sadly, her words didn’t match her deeds. Why? Because, when the Liberals revamped Ontario’s employment and labour laws last year, with the support of the NDP, they did not make provisions for paid breaks. They also failed to set regulations on whether and how employers can change private benefits. The very things that are so bad about Mr. Joyce’s behaviour.

Yet, the greedy acts of the former coffee house mogul and the rhetoric of the Liberal leader do not offer real solutions to the real problems with the minimum wage increase.

Let’s start with the problems.

First, for workers: the increased minimum wage still traps people in poverty. If you were paid for 35 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, at $15/hour (which is the amount minimum wage is set to rise to next year), you’d earn less than the low-income cut-off line. In other words, you can work full-time and still live at subsistence levels – putting more of your hard-earned dollars to cover the basics than the average family. In a province as wealthy as ours, this is unacceptable. It is also unacceptable that employers can make drastic changes to work-life balance (like taking away paid breaks) without some form of short-term compensation.

Second, for small businesses: the increased minimum wage makes tight margins even tighter. Not only do ma-and-pa shops now have to pay their staff more, they have to contribute more in payroll taxes like CPP and the Employer Health Tax. This threatens our local economies as overheads go up, in some cases significantly, and the costs of goods and services do too.

Thankfully, there are real solutions to address these real problems. To start, as your Green Party candidate, I’m calling for a living wage. A living wage is an amount where workers make enough to pay for food, shelter, hydro and have some left over to provide modest activities for themselves and their kids – playing on a local hockey team for instance. This wage can be calculated by region to account for differences in cost-of-living in urban centres, rural towns and remote communities. A living wage is a better way to help workers out of poverty. If you love the $15 minimum wage, you’ll really love this. And you’ll love my call for employers to compensate employees for breaks in recognition of the importance of balance in the workforce.

Also, the Green Party of Ontario wants to cut payroll taxes for small businesses. Doubling the current exemption rate of the Employer Health Tax for example, will give owners a better chance at staying open because it increases cash flow month-to-month. It will also give them a greater ability to invest in their employees who, if you agree with my argument above, will be earning a living wage. If you loathe the $15 minimum wage because of its impact on small business, many of your concerns will be addressed with this. More than that, we could slow down the implementation of increased new wages to $1 a year for as many years as it takes to get to a living wage. This will help small businesses find efficiencies in their operations in a more sustainable manner, hopefully avoiding job cuts and unnecessary automation.

Addressing real problems with real solutions puts the increase minimum wage into perspective. And it brings people together. It reminds us that at the end of the day, the policy can be studied, trialled, and changed, all for the betterment of the people and small businesses of Ontario.

Now that’s worth writing about.