by Julie Bourassa, CFICE Volunteer
It’s hard to make a living. Especially when minimum wage does not guarantee a decent quality of life.
It is for this reason that the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction – along with many poverty-focused community groups – are advocating for a living wage.
“People have both physical needs, like food, and social needs, like civic engagement. Poverty reduction is not just about providing enough food, but also about providing people with chances to engage in a minimum level of social activities,” explains Zhaocheng Zeng, a PhD candidate at McMaster’s DeGroote School of Business. “Unlike the minimum wage, a living wage can serve this purpose.”
For families supported by a minimum wage income, quality of life could be significantly improved by a living wage.
Zeng recalls the testimony of a single mother of two: “She was a minimum wage worker, and she described her life as ‘not able to afford anything besides basic food.’”
For this woman, a living wage would mean being able to take her children to the dentist, to have a friend over for supper, or to take her family on small outings.
“With a living wage practice, the quality of their lives can be improved because the living wage takes not only workers’ surviving needs, but also their social needs into consideration,” says Zeng.
However, there is often a significant gap between the minimum and living wage. For example, Ontario’s current minimum wage is $11.25, while the average living wage in Hamilton is $14.95.
“The living wage in Hamilton is calculated based on what it costs to live in this city,” explains Zeng.
Calculation of the cost of living is based on a number of local factors, including: available tax benefits, child care, transportation costs, utility costs, school fees, and basic needs.
Choosing to Pay a Living Wage
Unfortunately, living wages are not yet mandated by law. It falls on employers to choose a living wage for their employees. While at first it may seem like just an additional cost to the employer, living wages promote many benefits for both the employer and the employee.
As part of its partnership with the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement – and, by extension, the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction – CFICE’s Poverty Hub funded a study that looked into the experiences of living wage employers and employees.
Zeng, who co-authored the study, spoke with local employers and noted the positive results of paying their full-time employees a living wage.
“Employers will have a more engaged, more committed, and happier workforce,” observes Zeng. “At the same time, employers can develop a good reputation in the community, because paying a living wage shows their care and concern for their own employees. All of this is important for long-term business development.”
The study also conducted a survey to explore the experiences of minimum and living wage employees. The results of this survey demonstrate that living wage employees have a lower turnover rate, and are more engaged in the overall culture of their organizations.
While the study addresses the obstacles that come with implementing a living wage, it also dispels the often-held notion that a living wage only costs the employers. Most importantly, it highlights the need to continue working toward a living wage for a higher quality of living for our families, and our communities.