The reaction to Ontario’s minimum wage hike demonizes low-wage earners

“Fourteen dollars an hour is not an extravagant demand.”
January 11, 2018, 3:27pm

Last week, Ontario’s minimum wage went up to $14 an hour for most workers, and $12.10 an hour for others, like restaurant servers, whose wages are partially buffered by tips. It was a move announced by the Ontario Liberal government months in advance, accompanied by pledged small business tax cuts from both the provincial and federal governments, and precipitated by price hikes on everything from steak and lobster tail to a medium double-double.

In other words, the higher cost of labour in 2018 (which will be followed by another hike in 2019) had, for the most part, been baked into the equation for most business owners.

But that isn’t how many business owners (or, for that matter, many media outlets) reacted. In response to low-paid workers receiving finally receiving some financial relief from an economic climate that leaves them struggling to pay rent and keep the lights on, some Tim Hortons franchisees cut their employees’ benefits and paid breaks.

As I reported for VICE Money, restaurants like Sunset Grill increased their tipping clawbacks, Cineplex Odeon publicly fretted about laying off employees, and the Toronto Star ran a somewhat misleading headline story declaring “Wage hike could cost 60,000 jobs,” in response to the Bank of Canada’s report that a the wage increase could cause a 0.3 percent decline in hours worked.

In reality, there weren’t 60,000 workers in danger of receiving the pink slip, but rather, the Bank of Canada was revising its job growth figures downward by one-third of one percent. Minimum wage-earning workers spent a day being castigated over jobs that didn’t yet exist, and an estimate could have been revised for any other reason at all.

Without fail, this conversation happens every time the minimum wage goes up. Against multiple studies showing the minimum wage has no correlation with job losses and rapidly rising inflation, all we seem to hear is the opposite. Pundits argue the skyrocketing costs of labour will threaten payrolls, and business owners argue paying their employees enough to make a decent living will threaten their very existence.

Why bother taking the risk of opening a business and hiring employees, they ask, if the government is hell bent on waging this sort of class warfare? Why stop at $15 an hour, asked the son of a former Prime Minister, who’s unlikely ever to worry about feeding children and keeping the lights on with a $14 an hour job. Why not pay them a million?

What’s often missing from the conversation is the multitude of other ways business costs go up, and none of them involve this kind of opprobrium towards other human beings who work hard and manage getting by on minimum wage.

On Wednesday, activists part of the “Fight for $15 and Fairness” campaign held pamphleteering sessions at Tim Hortons locations across Ontario, including a location at York University. The coffee counter, just outside the Curtis Lecture Halls, is a unionized work environment that negotiated staggered wage increases with franchise operator Aramark. In fact, the workers were already earning over $13 per hour before this year’s minimum wage increase. I spoke with a few of the employees, and one of them said “Yes, a work environment where we can collectively negotiate is definitely better than one where we can’t.”

I also spoke with Alex Hunsberger, York University’s local organizer for the 15 and Fairness campaign, and he asserted the same. “This is not something that can be negotiated or solved on an individual level,” he said. “Fourteen dollars an hour is not an extravagant demand.”

When the cost of fuel goes up, we vent spleen about peak oil for a few days, and we pay an extra few cents at the grocery store. The price of coffee beans goes up, the free hand of the market is invoked, and we give no second thoughts as we tap our bank cards at the counter.

These are intangibles, with the source of price hikes so far removed from our own experience that we know griping about it is a waste of time. Oil passes through too many pipelines before it ends up as fuel in our tanks, and coffee bean growers in South America couldn’t care less how you feel about your $5 latté.

But people who work for minimum wage definitely hear these conversations. And that’s what this conversation really boils down to — shoveling dirt on those with the least power to speak up. Over the few days since I wrote the story on Sunset Grill clawing back its employees’ tips, my Twitter DMs and e-mail inbox have been deluged with stories from restaurant and retail workers who believe their employers have used the wage hike backlash to punish them.

There’s the server in Alberta who’s not only on the hook for 8 percent of her customer’s tab, but her non-tipped co-workers have seen their tip-out amounts cut in half.

There were employees at retail stores, hotels, bars, daycares, and car dealerships who wrote me to tell their stories about the employers who penalized them, and how they felt about the conventional wisdom that yes, of course businesses will stiff their employees if forced to pay them a half-decent wage.

And implicit in each of these stories was the question: Why am I the one who should feel bad about this?

The highest-paid CEOs in this country have, on average, earned the annual salary of a minimum wage worker in a single day’s work. The average Tim Hortons franchise, according to disclosures from a 2008 lawsuit, produced over $265,000 in net revenue. Tim Hortons has, by the way, increased its prices several times due to coffee bean prices, rising operations costs, and a multibillion dollar merger with Burger King in the time since those disclosures went public. And yet, customer loyalty continues to produce high profits for the chain, their jonesing for a coffee and Timbits impervious to price spikes.

A worker earning the current $14 an hour minimum wage — and keep in mind, these are often people supporting families at that wage level — can’t cover the cost of an average two-bedroom apartment and groceries in Toronto. Not without pulling a moonlight shift elsewhere.

A year from now, the minimum wage in Ontario will rise again, to $15 an hour. Here’s hoping we manage that transition without resorting to demonizing people who put on uniforms, or work boots, or hair nets and gloves each day to make everyone’s lives a little easier.

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