Amanda McGuffin struggles to see how $10.25 an hour will improve her financial situation.
The 30-year-old single mother, who’s in debt for more than $3,000, has been struggling for five years, ever since moving from Alberta to B.C. Working for minimum wage at a local fast food restaurant, her last pay cheque was $276.78.
“Without my mom and stepdad, I’d be living on the streets,” said McGuffin, who shares rent and other household expenses with her parents. “I wouldn’t be able to afford rent, I wouldn’t be able to afford anything.”
As it is, McGuffin doesn’t indulge in extras. She shares a small room with her son, all their clothes are second-hand, as are her well-worn, mismatched couches. She doesn’t go camping, doesn’t eat out, and when her son turned three, she didn’t even hold a birthday party for him.
“As a mother, it’s so humbling because you’re not able to do a lot of things on minimum wage.”
McGuffin’s situation worsened two weeks ago when she quit her job because of inconsistent, limited hours.
The provincial government is increasing the minimum wage from $8 an hour to $8.75 on May 1, and then up to $10.25 by May 2012. It’s the first time in 10 years minimum wage in B.C. has increased.
B.C. had the lowest minimum wage in Canada, but by next year it will be in line with Ontario, and will be the second highest minimum wage province, below Nunavut’s $11 per hour.
According to Peter Hall, Simon Fraser University professor of urban studies, by increasing the minimum wage the government has removed the incentive for people to leave the province.
It will also improve the quality of life for those working at that level, and will improve quality of employment for employers, by acting as a constant reminder to use their workers more productively, he said.
Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce surveyed its membership six months ago, asking how an increase in minimum wage would affect small business. The majority of respondents were already paying above minimum wage.
Jason Lum, chamber president and owner of Myriad Information Technology Solutions, said as a small business owner he’s never paid minimum wage.
“I’ve always paid above minimum wage. You have to pay a certain amount of money to get good talent and keep good talent. I think every small business person understands that,” he said.
“We have a very high rate of working poor people in this province and it’s attributed to the fact that everything is going up – taxes, basic necessities, energy, gas prices. Every business person worth their business licence needs to understand that wages have not kept pace. People should have been prepared for this.”
Some argue the increase isn’t enough for those living in the Lower Mainland. A person working full-time at $10.25 an hour is still only making $20,500 a year before taxes.
McGuffin’s monthly bills, which include rent, home phone, cell phone, hydro, and basic groceries, exceed $1,000, and that doesn’t include medical expenses, diapers, or paying off debt.
In April, McGuffin was in a car accident that took her off work for eight months, and for four of those months she wasn’t receiving income or employment insurance.
“I was living off my credit cards.”
The pain medication to control her back spasms came out of her own pocket.
“I feel like I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul. I’m living pay cheque to pay cheque. You can’t survive on minimum wage. You need two or three jobs to make ends meet.”
Hall believes the government should legislate regular, predictable minimum wage increases, “so that we don’t get ourselves into a situation again where we are lagging behind by as much as 20 per cent of other provinces.”
“But minimum wage is just one piece of the puzzle,” he said. “When it comes to having a healthy local economy … it’s not responsible for every problem and it’s not the solution to every problem.”
Chilliwack MLA John Les, who chaired the legislative committee on finance last fall, agreed it was time to increase the minimum wage. But because there were several factors to consider on both the employer and employee side, the government could not rush into the change.
“There is evidence that suggests when minimum wage is increased, it’s hard on youth employment, that you actually have more youth being unemployed,” said Les. “Employers often find that youth are difficult to employ in that they don’t have the skill set, and they need a lot of training and supervision, and they’re (employers) prepared to put up with that if they don’t have to pay them too much money.
But if they have to pay too much, they’re more likely to hire older and more skilled workers.”
The minimum wage increase had nothing to do with keeping residents in B.C. or improving the economy – it was mainly to keep in line with the other provinces, said Les. And it’s not meant to be a living wage.
“I’ve always seen minimum wage as an entry level wage. Those who are embarking on their first job need a lot of training and supervision, and I think that’s where minimum wage is most appropriately used,” said Les. “If somebody 25 or 30 years old is still working for $10.25 an hour, I think there’s other issues at play beyond the prescribed level of minimum wage as articulated by government.”
McGuffin is currently looking for employment that will give her more consistent working hours and more than 20 hours a week. She’s also taking entry level courses at the University of the Fraser Valley, hoping to eventually break free of the minimum wage struggle.
“I never thought my life would be like this,” she said.