In February, the Ontario government introduced its Fair Minimum Wage Act.
The bill, if passed, would tie future annual minimum wage increases to Ontario's Consumer Price Index, in an effort to make sure the province's minimum wage keeps up with the cost of living for individuals and families at a predictable, manageable rate for employers.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s minimum wage will increase from $10.25 per hour to $11 per hour beginning June 1 (the highest minimum wage in Canada).
That, Sault resident Jennifer Rowe told SooToday.com, is still not enough.
Rowe (pictured) is a married mother of two children.
Her husband is currently employed and works for a slightly higher than minimum wage, plus commission.
Rowe currently has two jobs.
She makes slightly more than minimum wage at one of those jobs, for about 15 to 20 hours a week.
Rowe said her other employer has informed her that specifically because of the minimum wage increase, he will be losing money as a business owner and her hours will be cut.
In fact, Rowe said, her hours have already been dramatically cut by that employer.
“Two weeks out of the last month I’ve had no hours at all, and there was one week before then I worked a total of 12 hours.”
This comes two months before the June 1 minimum wage increase takes effect.
“Basically we are two under-employed people in their late 20s trying to live on minimum wage with two kids to look after, one who is school age, one who is not, and with our level of student debt we would be homeless if we weren’t living with my husband’s parents,” Rowe said.
Rowe has two degrees from Algoma University.
Her husband has also studied at Algoma, with a background in business studies.
“We can’t afford an apartment and the utilities that go with it, so right now we’re among those invisible homeless people that you don’t really hear about very much because we’re not sitting out on the street begging for change.”
Even if both she and her husband worked full-time, $11 an hour is not enough, Rowe said.
Dismissing the claims of most employers who say increases in minimum wage will hurt their bottom line, Rowe said “I know most businesses nowadays are not little, independently owned stores like they were years ago.”
“Most of the stores now are franchises and big box stores, they’re multi-million dollar earners, some of them are multi-billion dollar earners.”
“The line they give, that they can’t afford to give people a living wage of $13 or $14 an hour is just a lie,” Rowe said.
When CEOs of large retail companies award themselves huge bonuses, Rowe said, “there’s no reason they can’t afford to pay people $14 an hour.”
“If people like myself could have that money, we would spend it as soon as we got it on essential items, which helps our economy…we wouldn’t put it in an offshore bank account or save it up for a vacation.”
“If we were lucky we could save some and maybe buy a house, a car, and that would help the economy of Sault Ste. Marie…$14 an hour would be amazing,” Rowe said.
Critics, such as a coalition of anti-poverty activists and union representatives, have banded together and are urging the province to raise minimum wage to $14 an hour, not only to give minimum wage earners more financial breathing room, but also as a vitally important step towards better health for workers.
The current $11 an hour, they say, keeps people in poverty, which in turn leads to poorer diet, inability to buy prescription drugs or vitamins, poorer health, more sick days, lost productivity and a greater strain on Ontario’s healthcare system.
Rowe agrees, saying herself, her husband and children have suffered through winter colds and the flu without coverage for medications because of being stuck in a low-paid, part-time rut.
Fortunately, Rowe says no one in her family is chronically ill at present, but her husband has been informed by doctors that he could one day develop multiple sclerosis.
“It’s frightening…right now our strategy for dealing with that is to not think about it, it’s a long and scary road.”
“I hate to sound horribly melodramatic about it, but we have no hope.”
“Our hours and wages are so low, and it’s Sault Ste. Marie, there’s not a whole lot here for anyone, especially people our age.”
Added to that frustration is the feeling that she cannot provide for her childrens future, Rowe said.
Rowe said it would be difficult to leave the Sault, her hometown, but said she and her husband are considering leaving the community for employment elsewhere (Ottawa is their first choice, she said).
The Fair Minimum Wage Act has passed second reading in the Ontario Legislature, and the Liberal government is urging the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP to support it.
With Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals in a minority government situation, and with speculation growing that an Ontario general election looms, the Fair Minimum Wage Act may not pass.
Nevertheless, Rowe is committed to courageously battling on.
“I have no choice, I have two kids, I just can’t throw in the towel and give up,” Rowe said.
“I have to do everything I can for them, and I’m grateful for every minute of time and every ounce of compassion my family has for us, but the only thing that can make a difference for us is a higher wage, a living wage, something that can break us out of this hole we’re in.”
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