Niagara leading growth of living wage program in Ontario: advocacy group

By Allan Benner
Nov 07, 2019

Niagara is outpacing the rest of the province with its number of businesses opting to become certified living wage employers.

“Niagara is definitely gaining the most right now,” said Ontario Living Wage Network manager Anne Coleman.

The region currently has 28 businesses and organizations certified as living wage employers, meaning they provide workers with enough income to meet their cost-of-living needs, rather than minimum wage.

And the vast majority of those employers didn’t sign on until this year.

As a result of that recent growth, Coleman said, the local program — launched two years ago by the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network — is now leading the 27 participating regions across Ontario.

“I think the reason for that is the dedication of the local group that’s working on the living wage, as well as media,” said Coleman.

“There’s so much positive media in the region and that’s really getting the word out.”

She joined Niagara Poverty Reduction Network chair Glen Walker, Beechwood Doughnuts co-owner Tayler Book, and PenFinancial Credit Union’s chief human resources officer Jayne Paquin for a panel discussion about the initiative Thursday at Robertson Hall in St. Catharines.

Although some regions still have more certified living wage employers than Niagara, she said, those places “have been doing it for a much longer time.”

Earlier this week, the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network announced the region’s latest living wage calculation, estimating it costs $18.12 an hour for a double-income family of four to cover the costs they face.

It puts Niagara at the fifth most expensive region in the province.

Walker attributed the recent growth of the program to business owners inspired to participate by others who have joined the program.

“It’s that type of word-of-mouth,” he said, adding the need for more businesses to get involved is increasing.

“I keep hearing stories every day of people having to work 70 hours a week, just to make ends meet.

“We have all sorts of people with two or three part-time jobs and trying to juggle that is so challenging. It’s almost impossible,” Walker said.

Escalating costs combined with inadequate wages, he said, have resulted in a “dramatic increase in couch surfing, homelessness, just because people can’t afford a place to live, let alone buying food and transportation — it’s just awful.”

Walker called the living wage initiative a great place to start working toward resolving those challenges.

Coleman said businesses and organizations that have opted to participate in the program “see the benefits of paying a living wage certainly for workers, for business and for the community.”

In addition to continuing to encourage employers to get involved, Coleman said the Ontario Living Wage Network hopes to get more regions active.

“Our goal is to blanket the whole province and really, we want to reduce poverty. We want to raise wages.”