Poor Pay In Plagueland

Canada’s lowest minimum wage makes life harder for many Sask. workers

Province by Miranda Hanus

Making ends meet on minimum wage pay is a struggle for a lot of the people many of us interact with every day — from grocery store employees to coffee baristas, to those who work in gas stations and department stores.

Those challenges escalated this past March with the arrival of the global pandemic COVID-19. Federal and provincial calls for store closures saw employees in already precarious work conditions laid off by the thousands.

After a quiet summer and cautious restart of the economy, a new surge in cases — more than 2,000 active as of Nov. 17 — has led to new restrictions as Saskatchewan takes baby steps to get the pandemic back under control.

While the moves — which include lower limits on gathering sizes, a ban on care home visits and province-wide mandatory mask use — are necessary (some would argue overdue), they’ll do little to help Saskatchewan’s minimum and low-wage workers make it through winter.

The Myth Of Minimum Wagers

According to the August 2020 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report Surviving on Minimum Wage: Lived Experiences of Manitoba Workers and Policy Implications, there’s a stereotype of minimum wage workers as “a small and transitory group, primarily teenagers and young adults or new workers, who quickly receive wage increases with job tenure and experience.”

The Manitoba study — which was completed before the coronavirus hit —shows that reality is quite different. Nearly half of that province’s minimum-wage workforce are over 25.

Fifty-three per cent have been in their jobs more than a year, and almost a third live with a partner.

This is not a carefree cohort of teenagers working to buy extra clothes and video games.

Molly McCracken is the Manitoba director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She says the study’s participants say it’s much harder to find full-time work than it was 20 years ago.

“It’s still hard to pay for rent, food, basic necessities on a minimum wage job — which are quite often part-time or [have] unpredictable hours week to week,” says McCracken.

“People are now working two or three jobs, shift notice is very short and they don’t know week to week how many hours they have.”

Minimum to low-wage jobs impacted by the pandemic include catering, store greeters, non-union care aides and domestic workers — including childcare and housekeeping. Many of these jobs also lack extended health care benefits and sick days — which is critical, given the importance of isolation times of up to 14 days for workers exposed to the virus.

Here in Saskatchewan, one silver lining for underpaid workers has been the Federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) that helped locked-down employees while they waited to return to their jobs.

“Many, many people would not have been able to survive at all,” says Lori Johb, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour.

It’s still not enough, though. A provincial program for frontline health care workers, the Saskatchewan Temporary Wage Supplement Program (TWSP), excluded some workers depending on where they were employed.

Johb says this meant workers in acute care settings did not have access to the temporary wage supplement, even though many of those employees have the same duties as people working in long-term care settings.

“And not just the care staff,” said Johb, “but the cleaning staff, the dietary staff and all the other people that work on the support team.”

The province did announce July 30 that the program would expand to include many of those workers left out of the program’s initial launch.

Heroes To Zeroes

Remember when Shoppers Drug Mart and Superstore employees got a temporary increase of up to two dollars added to their hourly wage? Johb says that wage increase was cut after the lockdowns were lifted, during a time when these corporations are making record profits because of the pandemic.

“This was really unfair, because frankly the risk is the very same for people that work on the front lines now as it was in March,” she says.

One solution could be a real increase to Saskatchewan’s minimum wage — Canada’s lowest at $11.45 an hour (and that’s after an Oct. 1 boost). But is there public appetite for that? In the Oct. 26 provincial election, the New Democratic Party included a $15 minimum wage in its campaign promises. The NDP settled for 13 seats and less than 32 per cent of votes cast, so it won’t be able to implement this promise. Probably not the best result for low-wage workers in a pandemic, but the voters have spoken.

It will be interesting to see if their opinions change in 2024 after four more years of poverty pay holding the Saskatchewan economy — and the people working in it — back. 


Sidebar

Peril For Single Parents

For a single parent working 32 hours a week — four shifts of eight hours a week — Saskatchewan’s $11.45/hour minimum wage likely won’t cover rent, childcare and transportation (vehicle and  fuel), let alone food. And Creator forbid workers require non-insured healthcare if they do contract COVID-19. Prescriptions, mobility aids, physical therapy and home care are not automatically covered by the provincial government. /MH

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