A new study says $16.59 per hour is a minimum “living wage” for families of four in the Comox Valley (two working parents). But the study assumes people can find housing at 30 percent of their gross income, and it doesn’t consider the plight of single parents
The Comox Valley is one of the least expensive places in the province to live, according to a new study by a British Columbia advocacy group that encourages employers to pay a living wage.
It’s a claim by the Living Wage for Families Campaign that would surprise most people trying to find affordable housing here. Especially single parents.
And yet, if the group’s data is accurate, it still requires two working parents to each work full-time and earn a minimum wage of $16.59 per hour to support a family of four in the Comox Valley.
That’s $5.24 per hour higher than the current minimum wage of $11.35 And When B.C.’s minimum wage increases to $12.65 on June 1, it will still fall short by $3.94 per hour.
FURTHER READING: Living Wage for Families website
B.C. Premier John Horgan has vowed to increase the province’s minimum wage to $15.20 by the year 2021. But even that is already lower than the current living wage requirement in most areas of the province, according to the study.
So the questions are: how accurate is the Living Wage for Families Campaign study, and does it apply to single people or single parents?
Did it consider the Comox Valley’s lack of affordable housing, or the low vacancy rate and high rental rates that exist here.
If two parents both earn $16.59 per hour and work full-time (35 hours according to the study), they could afford to pay about $1,500 per month in housing costs. The study assumes paying roughly 30 percent of gross income on shelter.
Two bedroom units in the Comox Valley renting at $1,500 per month are difficult — maybe impossible — to find.
According to a quick check of for-rent ads on Internet sites and Comox Valley property management listings put the range for two bedroom units in multi-floor apartment buildings at between $950 per month and $1,250 per month. And only one or two had vacancies.
Two bedroom small houses rent for $2,000 per month and up, if you can find one.
So Comox Valley families of four would find it difficult to live on even the study’s living wage estimate.
And it’s worse for single people.
A single parent with two children earning $16.59 per hour and paying 30 percent of their gross income for housing could only afford $755 per month. Good luck with that in the Comox Valley.
Having to pay $1,000 or more for even basic housing means a single parent family would have just $900 or less left over each month for hydro, food, taxes, transportation and clothing.
For many single parents this study’s living wage sounds more a survival wage.
But here’s the real tragedy.
The B.C. government will raise the minimum wage to just $12.65 on June 1 of this year, and then to $13.85 next year, to $14.60 in 2020 and finally to $15.20 in 2021.
By that time, the Comox Valley’s living wage will have gone far beyond the $16.59 it’s estimated at today.
And the government’s plan separates out farm workers and liquor servers (bartenders, waiters and anyone who serves liquor) for lower minimum wages than other working people.
FURTHER READING: B.C. minimum wage fact sheet; Minimum wage by province
So it’s no surprise that the B.C. NDP government has been criticized by labor unions and other worker advocacy groups for moving too slow on increasing the minimum wage.
Among Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories, only five had a lower minimum wage on April 1, according to the Retail Council of Canada.
About 20 percent of British Columbians earn less than $15 an hour. Nearly half of those are university and college graduates over the age of 25.
Low wages and rising housing costs trap people in poverty and closes off avenues of upward mobility. In turn, that deepens the divide between rich and poor and keeps people from ever getting a foothold into the middle class.
Addressing the minimum wage issue requires unraveling a complex web of economic factors, including the shortage of affordable housing.
In the absence of a significant increase in the minimum wage, B.C. should make funding the construction of affordable housing a high priority.
Doing so will both stimulate job creation and sales tax revenue, and reduce the housing cost burden that keeps families trapped in poverty and frustration.
Random related facts
¶ Due to the Comox Valley’s demographics, we have a high percentage of residents paying more than 50 percent of their gross income on housing. Many of them are elderly.
¶ Over 110 companies and organizations across BC, employing more than 18,000 workers and covering many thousands more contracted service workers, have been certified as Living Wage Employers. These include Huu-ay-aht First Nations, Vancity, the United Way of the Lower Mainland, the City of Quesnel, the City of Port Coquitlam, Urban Solar and PARC Retirement Living. In 2017, the City of Vancouver certified as a Living Wage Employer, and eight other local governments in BC have living wage policies.
¶ During the City of Seattle’s minimum wage debate several years ago (they implemented it), Tom Douglas, owner of 14 restaurants in Seattle, emerged as voice of reason. He voluntarily raised the pay of all his employees to $15 per hour.
Why? As he told National Public Radio, “The more you put dollars into people’s hands to be spent, I’m sure it probably would be healthy for the economy.”
In other words, doing the right thing and taking good care of your employees makes business sense.
It could make sense for British Columbia, too.