Living wage good business

THUNDER BAY, ONT. — Earning a living wage is good for workers, but employers who are certified with the Ontario Living Wage Network say it’s also good business.

A report released Monday highlighted the gap between Ontario’s minimum wage of $15.50 an hour and what Ontario Living Wage Network estimates to be the rate a worker actually needs to get by. They estimate Thunder Bay’s living wage at $19.70 per hour. Rates across the province range from $18.05 to $23.15.

At Thunder Bay’s Wakefield Oil Change, owner Gary Linquist is proud to be a registered living wage employer. Having owned the business since 2018, Linquist employs three full-time and two part-time staff members.

“We were already paying our staff over the living wage and I just think the need to pay your employees well is something more valuable than marketing,” he said. “Your best marketing tool is actually having good employees and having the same employees for the long term. Keeping them around is an asset to me and I don’t really want employee turnover so I make sure that we’re living wage or higher for all our employees that are here.”

Linquist says it’s also good to have the same faces around all the time which means his customers are dealing with the same people all the time. “You don’t have that employee turnover and that’s what people like,” he said.

Wakefield is one of more than 500 employers in Ontario who are certified with the Living Wage Network. Those employers agree to pay all direct and indirect employees the network’s living wage rate for their region. Annual fees to be certified range from $50 to $1,000 with private sector employers charged double what is paid by non-profit or public-sector workplaces.

Kinna-aweya Legal Clinic is also a certified living wage employer with 19 staff members between their Geraldton, Marathon and Thunder Bay offices. Beth Ponka, director of administration, says they are a community legal clinic funded by Legal Aid Ontario and signed onto the campaign a few years ago.

“We think it’s important to compensate employees fairly and to pay a living wage so that people have enough money to meet their basic needs,” she said. “We’ve been very fortunate actually. We have long-term staff who I think are happy and I think, for the most part, we have fairly good morale. And I think that in part that is because we compensate staff fairly and pay them a living wage.”

Ponka agrees that paying staff a living wage, along with many other equitable practices as well, makes a difference in staff retention.

“The living wage is very important. People want to work somewhere where they are able to be compensated fairly for the work that they do and be able to live a decent life,” she said.

The Lakehead Social Planning Council’s Poverty Reduction Strategy worked collectively with the Ontario Living Wage Network to determine that Thunder Bay’s 2022 living wage. The new rate of $19.70 per hour is an increase $3.40 from last year.

Bonnie Krysowaty, co-ordinator for the Thunder Bay Poverty Reduction Strategy, explained that the older numbers did not represent accurately how much it really costs to live in the north because it was based on a four-person family.

“This is an aggregated adjusted calculation,” she said. “It now takes into account single-people, two-people and four-people families, so it’s a much more robust calculation.”

Krysowaty says for someone who’s earning a minimum wage and working 40 hours a week, it’s not enough.

“We know how much rent costs in the north and Thunder Bay. Food costs are on the rise and the cost of living increases exponentially every month. So, it’s not surprising to see these numbers go up that way,” she said. “If you don’t pay workers enough money to live then they suffer. They’re not able to meet the social determinants of health, maybe providing childcare or getting transportation and some can even end up being homeless.”

She says people who can’t make ends meet are often forced to make hard choices. Some pay only the bills that they have to, they will let their phone become disconnected or not eat for a couple of days so they could pay their heating bill. They might call in sick to work for a few days because they don’t have the transportation to get there or they cannot pay for childcare and some may not be able to buy their medical prescriptions.

“Sometimes they can’t afford to pay rent, Krysowaty said. “There can be very grave consequences.

Being a living wage employer helps to retain staff, which in turn is very beneficial for the company, especially with the challenges of worker shortages.

“We’re seeing something that we really haven’t seen before . . . and that is a recession with a lot of job availability,” she said. Usually, in a recessive time, jobs and income are very hard to come by. That’s not the case right now. It’s a very different kind of field that we’re navigating. People can pick and choose where they’re working right now.”

Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal