Posted April 8, 2019
The last time I wrote about living wages in the Morning File, I mentioned that New Westminster, B.C. was the first Canadian city to create a living wage policy, which came into effect in that city January 1, 2011. Under the policy, all city staff are paid a living wage (this year the hourly living wage rate in New Westminster is $20.91) and all firms contracted or subcontracted by the city must also pay their staff a living wage.
I’ve been wanting to talk with someone on council there about how the policy is working eight years later. This week, I spoke with Jaimie McEvoy, the councillor in New Westminster who advocated for the living wage policy.
McEvoy tells me the push for the policy started when he got a visit from their local chapter of ACORN Canada, which was looking to launch a campaign to get a living wage policy in B.C. McEvoy says the group was surprised by his response.
“I said, ‘Sure, let’s do this,’” McEvoy says.
But McEvoy already had an understanding of poverty. McEvoy is the director of the Hospitality Project at the New Westminster Food Bank where he saw the effects of low incomes on their clients.
“A lot of people I saw in poverty had a job, but that job didn’t provide a decent living or cover their expenses,” McEvoy says.
McEvoy says advocating for a living wage meant two things: helping people understanding the real cost of living for those with lower incomes, and also putting a human face on poverty.
McEvoy says they asked city staff to do a study on how a living wage policy would work and include iron clad facts that would hold up against arguments against a living wage policy.
“We didn’t want to make any mistakes here,” McEvoy says. “We needed to be honest with the people in the community.”
First, they got the numbers. McEvoy says they used reports and figures from Living Wage Canada British Columbia to learn the real costs of living. For example, dietitians laid out the real costs of food for people living in poverty.
McEvoy says when councillors and people in the community started to realize they knew the people — the janitors, cafeteria workers, security guards — who weren’t making a living wage.
“Through that six-month process, it became about those people and then it became a human story,” McEvoy says.
Part of the city’s research included details on how people spent the money they received from an increase to a living wage. McEvoy says they found through a study done by the New York Times that employees used that money to pay off debt, improve their education by taking a course or going back to school, or they spent more time with family because they didn’t have to work a second job to get by.
McEvoy says the arguments against a living wage policy included that the policy would bankrupt the city and the government shouldn’t be involved in the economy.
McEvoy says it was important to talk about a living wage policy because every year New Westminster council reviews its own salaries and those of senior staff. Yet, at the same time, minimum wage in British Columbia was $8/hour in 2011, and hadn’t gone up in 10 years.
“We were having this discussion and not for the people who needed it the most,” McEvoy says.
During the six months that study, McEvoy says councillors talked to people in the community, anti-poverty organizations, and businesses.
The study came back and recommended the city have an ethical purchasing policy. But McEvoy says that wasn’t what they wanted, so they pushed ahead with more research.
Eventually, the policy went to council and it passed in a unanimous vote. Workers got a raise to $16.74/hour, which was the living wage rate in New Westminster in 2011.
McEvoy says the living wage policy had an immediate impact on staff and workers and a minimal impact on the city itself. He says the cost to increase the wages of city staff to a living wage was about $140,000 that first year. The policy also got national attention. McEvoy suddenly found himself fielding calls from employers across the country asking about creating a living wage policy.
“It was challenging when you have a finance department of two people,” he says.
Now, eight years later, McEvoy says the city has become a role model for living-wage policies.
And he had questions from other municipalities and also employers who wanted to learn how they could create a similar policy. McEvoy met with Vancity Credit Union to talk about a living wage policy. The credit union adopted its own living wage policy in June 2013, raising its wages for its own employers and putting the policy in place for its contractors.
And the minimum wage in British Columbia increased to $8.75/hour in May 2011. The rate increased again that November to $9.50/hour and then again in May 2012 to $10.25/hour. The current minimum wage is $12.65/hour and the province has plans to increase the minimum wage to $15/hour by 2021.
McEvoy says the city had about 40 contractors and only two decided not to work with the city because of the policy.
But McEvoy says the biggest benefits have been with the employees themselves. He says the living wage policy has increased retention of staff. Turnover in staff, including the interviewing and hiring, costs money.
“People want to work for you,” McEvoy says. “You get more reliable public services when you have happier workers.”
And he says staff have said they have time to spend with their kids and can pay for field trips, vacations, and so on.
But McEvoy says he’s most proud the city took an important step to relieving poverty and the stress and mental anguish it can cause employees. And for McEvoy, as an employer himself, the living wage policy was personal and about his own ethics.
“I don’t believe in a country like Canada a person with a job still has to be poor,” he says. “Never once as an employer did I say, ‘How can I pay my employees as little as possible?’ I was doing this work as a city councillor. Was I being a good person to the people standing in front of me?”
McEvoy says he thinks there are employers out there who might be interested in creating a living wage policy, but don’t know how to do it. So, Halifax Council and other employers, McEvoy says if you want to talk a living wage policy in Halifax, he’s more than willing to tell you all about it. He says you can email him, so here you go: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I liked chatting with McEvoy. It was clear the living wage issue is a moral one for him. People working a job shouldn’t have to struggle to get by. Get the facts, learn how paying a living wage is a personal and human issue (because it is), and make a policy.
Article by Suzanne Rent for the Halifax Examiner (under Views, Item 1)