Lessons on the living wage, from Waterloo Region

Six years ago it seemed like living wage was dead in Waterloo Region.

Waterloo Regional Council had spent months considering whether or not to implement a living wage policy for all regional staff and externally contracted service staff.

But in the face of the global recession and a looming municipal election, councillors decided to defer a decision on living wage.

That was in 2009. Five years later, Trish Hennessy from CCPA-Ontario was speaking at the annual poverty symposium in Cambridge, Ontario. She spoke about the living wage movement, how it was growing in Canada and around the world. And she mentioned that there was a local employer in Waterloo Region who wanted to be certified as a living wage employer.

That information led a number of organizations to launch Living Wage Waterloo Region. Our goal was to encourage all employers in the region to pay their employees a living wage.

To do that, we created a Living Wage Employer Program to recognize employers committed to pay all their internal staff and external contract staff a living wage rate.

The local employer was Mennonite Savings and Credit Union which, like Vancity in B.C., helped get Living Wage Waterloo Region off the ground.

When Living Wage Waterloo Region launched during Living Wage Week in 2014, Mennonite Savings and Credit Union was joined by nine other living wage employers. Our goal for the first year was to enroll 10 employers with at least 500 employees. That evening we had already reached our goal. As we celebrate Living Wage Week 2015, Living Wage Waterloo Region has nearly doubled the number of employers—19, with two inquiries that arrived by e-mail even as I write this blog.

How did it happen? And is it having an impact?

It turns out that the public deliberations at Regional Council six years ago led other businesses and organizations to ask if they were paying a living wage. We learned, looking back, that sometimes just starting a conversation prepares the ground and plants the seed in your community.

It helped, also, that the organizations that formed the steering group for Living Wage Waterloo Region all committed to implement a living wage. And when Living Wage Waterloo Region released the 2015 living wage rate in October 2014, we immediately received inquiries from businesses that had made the living wage commitment for years and just needed to know the current rate.

We learned that every new initiative attracts more attention and more interest.

It helped that Living Wage for Families in B.C. had been operating a Living Wage Employer Program and that Living Wage Hamilton had also launched a program. That meant we did not have to start from scratch setting up an employer recognition program in Waterloo Region. Both the Canadian Living Wage Framework and CCPA-Ontario’s Living Wage Tax and Credit calculator also made it easier to calculate the local living wage rate.

We’ve learned that working within a network of living wage champions makes a difference.

What impact is living wage having? We surveyed the 10 initial living wage employers to ask that question. We found that of the nearly 500 people employed in those organizations, about 70 had seen their pay and/or benefits increased and that 98% of employees were paid the living wage rate or above.

The other remarkable thing we found was that overall employment at these 10 organizations has increased as well. Not every one of the organizations had an increase in employees. But several did. And the job growth was both in for-profit businesses and non-profits. This is not to say that paying a living wage led to job growth. But a concern often voiced by critics of the living wage is that it might increase pay for some workers, but it would lead to layoffs of other workers. What we see so far is that the evidence does not support this worry.

We have heard from employers that paying a living wage is important—both to value their employees, to retain employees, and to deliver better service.

John Neufeld, executive director of House of Friendship, a community agency with programs in supportive housing and shelter, addictions treatment, food security, and community development, explained it this way: “House of Friendship desired to be an excellent employer. Why? If we really care about the people in our community, we have to treat the people who work for us well. And they can do their jobs well.”

Randy Balzer from Zero Environmental, another Waterloo Region living wage employer, echoes that view: “Zero Environmental is focused on delivering to a higher standard in everything we do. Becoming a living wage employer was a natural fit as we already share many of the same principles and believe that equipping our employees for success will carry through to the service we provide our clients.”

We recently had a breakfast meeting where current living wage employers shared their experience implementing the living wage. Since that meeting we have had several inquiries and one new living wage employer already.

In attendance at the breakfast were four councillors from the Region of Waterloo. Far from being dead, living wage seems to be flourishing in Waterloo Region—just as it is across Ontario.

Greg deGroot-Maggetti is the program manager for Living Wage Waterloo Region, People in Poverty program coordinator
 at the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, and is on the executive committee of the newly formed Ontario Living Wage Network @OnLivingwage. Follow Greg on Twitter: @gregdgm

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