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Municipalities can lead on living wage, say councillors

With basic living expenses on the rise in Metro Vancouver and across the province, two municipal councilors encouraged their peers to consider adopting living wage policies.

At an annual conference hosted by the Columbia Institute's Centre for Civic Governance, Jaimie McEvoy and Meagan Brame shared their experiences pushing forward living wage policies in their own communities.

Last April, New Westminster became the first municipality in Canada to adopt a living wage bylaw. It raised the minimum wage paid by the municipality to $16.70. This wage applies to anyone who works on city property for an hour or more per month.

McEvoy was the champion behind that bylaw. At the time, he said, he figured he would either be viewed as popular, or a Pollyanna for taking a "compassionate approach to politics."

"If you're smart and strategic about it, then you will be seen as popular," he said. "I don't think our abstract values are worth very much if we don't live them out."

Part of his strategy was canvassing to both low and high-income neighbourhoods, and being clear to the public about what a living wage is and who it would affect.

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), the living wage in Metro Vancouver has increased about 60 cents in the past year, to $18.81.

The CCPA calculates living wage based on the cost of food, clothing, footwear, shelter, transportation, child care and health care for a family of four. It includes a $219 per month contingency fund and $714 per month for other things like household products, school supplies and recreation.

It assumes that two parents are working 70 hours per week at this wage, and does not include money for loan payments, retirement or education savings, or the cost of caring for a disabled or elderly family member.

According to McEvoy, New Westminster's living wage has cost the city an additional $150,000 this year -- about the same as the salary of a senior administrator.

In January, Esquimalt passed a resolution to draft a living wage document after its community social planning council calculated that a family with two children and two full-time working parents in the Capital Regional District needs to earn $17.30 per hour just to pay for the basics.

"It was the most contentious issue. . . probably the most heat we've seen in our council chambers ever," said Meagan Brame, one of the councilors who voted in favour of the resolution, which narrowly passed in a 4-3 vote.

Esquimalt's living wage will have a lower threshold than that of New Westminster's; it will only apply to city-tendered contracts worth more than $100,000 or longer than six months in duration.

Brame said that the biggest concern was that it would cost the city more. "It's still a competitive RFP process," she said. "It doesn't really affect our costs as a municipality because most [employees] are union anyway."

Seth Klein, the B.C. director of the CCPA, said that municipalities have an important role in leading the living wage discussion. He hopes public and private institutions like airports, school boards and universities could also adopt living wage policies to greater impact the service sector, where most minimum-wage earners are employed.

According to Klein, Revelstoke, Abbotsford and Cranbrook have also calculated what the living wage would be in those municipalities.

"It's an election year. . . it's a good issue," said Klein.

According to Michael McCarthy-Flynn, an organizer with the Living Wage for Families Campaign, 160 municipalities in the U.S. have adopted living wage policies.

"People in their bones know they are not being paid enough," said McCarthy-Flynn. "They're embarrassed to talk about it. This gives them a context to talk about it."

Colleen Kimmett reports for The Tyee.

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