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Ontario's newest trend: Living wage employers

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Image: Facebook/Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage

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When it came to raising the minimum wage in this province, for the longest time the typical small business owner would serve as the penultimate elephant in the room.

You could make the case for a higher minimum wage until you were blue in the face. It keeps workers below the poverty line. It hasn't caught up with inflation or productivity. It's not enough to make ends meet.

Only to be told: it'll put small businesses out of work.

On talk radio shows, they'd cue a caller who would say: "I look at my books and can't figure out how I can afford to raise the minimum wage without having to fire workers."

Conversation killer, right?

This is the story of the living wage and how it is changing the conversation about the inadequacy of the minimum wage in Ontario:

One day, out of the blue, I got a phone call. A small credit union in southern Ontario wanted to become a living wage employer -- could we help figure out how much more a living wage would be compared to the minimum wage?

We worked with a living wage working group in Waterloo region to calculate the living wage and now the Mennonite Savings and Credit Union is officially a recognized living wage employer under the region's new employer recognition program.

That means workers in that credit union now are paid a minimum of $16 an hour -- $4.75 more than the provincially mandated minimum wage.

In its first year of existence, the Waterloo program recognized 16 living wage employers in that region who either champion or pay a living wage. This week, they will recognize a new batch of living wage employers.

It's not the only example of a shifting conversation about low-waged work.

One day, out of the blue, I got a call from a major office supplier, who asked: what is the living wage in Toronto? Then a credit union in Toronto called asking for the local living wage calculation.

We formed a living wage working group and determined the living wage in Toronto in 2015 meant that two working parents with two children would need to earn at least $18.52 just to make ends meet.

DUCA Credit Union is now the GTA's first recognized living wage employer and a major champion of living wage initiatives throughout Ontario.

This fall the City of Toronto is advancing an interim poverty reduction strategy that includes a proposal to make the city a living wage employer. If this passes, it would make Toronto the biggest city in Canada to become a living wage champion.

Vancouver, which has declared its own commitment to become a living wage employer, would be the second biggest municipality in Canada to do so.

In Hamilton, the community launched its living wage employer recognition program this year -- including a commitment from the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce to become the first Chamber of Commerce chapter in Ontario to pledge a living wage.

It also recognized the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board for becoming the first school board in Ontario to pay a living wage.

In Windsor, they've launched a local living wage employer recognition program, garnering support from the Windsor Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce, which has promoted the living wage idea to its members in that community.

Here's what Spotvin, a Windsor small business with six employees, is saying: "Paying a living wage seems like the right thing to do. We run a creative business where the people we employ are very good at their craft and have spent at least 3 years in school. We believe that paying our staff well is just good business sense and has shown to have many benefits."

Elite Roofing Specialists in Windsor say: "At Elite, we pride ourselves on having the highest quality workmanship and outstanding customer service. In order to maintain that reputation we hire full-time staff that we can trust and rely on. By paying a living wage, our team members do not need to seek additional employment to cover their bills, as a result we see an increase in employee loyalty and lower staff turnover."

In Guelph this week, that community is not only launching its own local living wage employer recognition program, it is signing on a major national company as a living wage employer (stay tuned for this announcement).

The living wage has become the hottest conversation among employers who believe their mission is not just to make money, but to also reflect their corporate values.

DUCA Credit Union's rationale: "At DUCA, we view this as a fundamental principle of Fair Trade Banking. For the broader community this creates: greater consumer spending power; increased spending in local economy; increased civic engagement; improved health."

That is what I love about the living wage initiatives that are rippling like waves across Ontario: they're a refreshing counterpoint to the perennial conversation stopper whenever any province in Canada decides it's time to raise the minimum wage.

Not every business wants to profit off of a low-wage economy. A growing number of employers are signing up to do the right thing.

Because the living wage is a voluntary measure, it's an invitation to employers to consider the value of paying a living wage.

And it's a standing ovation for those who do.

There are now 24 living wage initiatives underway in every region of Ontario -- that's up from about five a couple of years ago.

On this, Living Wage Week, a glimmer of hope for what is usually a bleak topic: low-waged work.

Trish Hennessy is director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Ontario office and on the executive of the newly formed Ontario Living Wage Network, a project of the Atkinson Foundation's Decent Work Grant. Follow Trish on Twitter @trishhennessy. Follow the Ontario Living Wage Network on Twitter: @OnLivingwage

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Image: Facebook/Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage

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