Category Archives: Living Wage

Working yet Homeless in Banff, Alberta

Banff, Alberta. Located in one of the most beautiful areas in Canada. People come from all over the world by the bus loads. There is money being made for sure. Nothing wrong with making money, right?

The hotel industry does alright. I perused hotels there via Expedia and most of the rooms available were $400 to $500 per night. Then there’s all the restaurants and bars, the tourist shops, art galleries, the rafting experiences, horseback riding, and on and on.

Life is good in Banff. Good for business people. Good for visitors who can afford to be there. But what about the workers at the clothing stores, or at the restaurants, or the ones who clean the rooms at the $500 per night hotel?

Josh, 22, homeless worker in Banff, Alberta. Photo credit: Falice Chin/CB

Josh Smith moved to Banff a month or so ago because of the abundance of work there. He moved all the way from the east coast. He landed a job right away as a clerk at a retail outlet, making $15.00 per hour.

Let’s make sure that sinks in. A young man wanted to go to work so badly he travelled across the country to land a low wage, retail clerk’s position. Industrious. Committed. The kind of young man I would hire.

One problem, though: Josh is homeless.

Banff has a zero-per-cent vacancy rate. Josh has done some couch surfing but doesn’t stay long out of courtesy to his friends. He just can’t find a place he can afford. According a CBC report (sources below), he is willing to pay up to $800 per month, but there is nothing at that rate that is decent.

“Some people want $1,000 to share a room with. That’s going to be drinking all night, partying — because it is a party town. If I’m going to work 10,12 hours every day, I don’t want to come home to a roommate in the room who is just drinking.”

So, a young man willing to work long hours for what clearly is not a living wage in Banff, Alberta is left to camp out illegally or spend the night tippling coffee at the all night McDonald’s (when does he sleep?).

Josh is not alone. In July of 2016, officials with Banff National Park reported knowing of 230 illegal campsites in the area, more in those seven months than the entire year of 2015. It’s risky camping out like that because there are wild animals in the forests and hills. Park officials also noted the risk of having to pay up to $5,000 in fines for being homeless in the national park.

Josh has to use public washrooms to attend to his basic needs. According to him, it’s a common thing to see at public washrooms. “I bet money someone is washing their hair, guaranteed,” he says. “Every time I go, there’s a buddy brushing his teeth or washing his hair. Or he’s got the wet paper towel and he’s wiping down his body. It’s like, yeah, everyone is in the same boat as me.”

There is something wrong when workers, who are essential to the economy in Banff, can’t find affordable housing and in order to maintain their low paying jobs have to resort to what amounts to illegal behaviour.

Creating more affordable housing in Banff is a challenge beyond what most communities face. Because it is located in the National Park, all land is owned by the Federal Government. The municipality is subject to the National Parks Act. In other words, developers (whether for-profit or non-profit) can’t develop as easily as they might in other cities and towns where they can actually purchase land.

City council is trying to address this issue. They are dealing with illegal Airbnb listings, as it is illegal in Banff to rent out residential homes for commercial reasons, without a permit. I found that interesting. The potential of earning revenues through Airbnb likely surpasses what can be made renting out a room; so this just adds to the affordable housing crunch. People can make more money off of tourists than the workers who support their economy.

As well, town Counselor Grant Canning reported that 130 affordable housing units will be built in 2018. Given the number of illegal campsites and the unknown number of workers living in garages, at illegal camps, or couch surfing, who knows what kind of dent that development will make in the overall housing problem. Nevertheless, it’s progress.

This is an example of a social problem (homelessness) being a structural problem, not one to be blamed on Josh and others like him. It’s complicated for sure. It’s about how the economy is structured, people’s incessant drive to make more money, and the laws and regulations that have helped to create and exacerbate the homeless problem in Banff. It’s also likely another example of income inequality, where those making money are primed to make even more, while the Josh’s of the world make low wages and live illegally in one of the most beautiful places on the continent.

Is Josh discouraged? No doubt, he has his moments. Despite the unfairness of his situation, he remains committed to staying in Banff.

“I know with enough determination I can make it out here,” he says. “I want to be better off when I go back than I was when I came out.”

Going back east is not an option for him. That suggests life back home is even worse than in Banff for this hardworking, homeless young man. That’s likely another story and one I bet you is rooted in structural causes of poverty, unemployment, and lack of housing.

Sources

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/homeless-resort-town-banff-housing-crunch-workers-1.4216765

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/banff-illegal-camping-affordable-housing-2016-1.3700223

LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY

Note:  In addition to writing about community change and penning commentary, I am a story teller. I write fiction and spoken word. This piece is a mix of fact and fiction, often called “faction.”

One of my small luxuries in life is having someone come to my house weekly and clean it. I tell myself I need this service because I am so busy, but truth is it’s a luxury for me. I can afford it and to be honest I have the time to take care of my own mess; I just hate doing it.

Karen is the one who takes care of this for me. She is 24 and nearly always cheerful. She does an excellent job and in good time as well.  She is a friend of a friend and when I heard she was interested in providing this service, I decided to give her a go.

When I asked her what she charged, she asked if $15 per hour would be okay. I had two reactions to her question. One had to do with her proposal representing a great deal. If I were a business I might have equated her wage request as a way of minimizing the cost of her labour on my bottom line.

But I am not a business. I am just a guy who dislikes doing his own housework. My second reaction was the stronger of the two. I told her I would pay her $25 per hour. In my mind, anything less seemed, not enough. I was asking her to clean up after me, wash floors and tackle the mess of bathrooms.

Karen wasn’t yet 21 when she gave birth to her daughter, Millie. Neither she nor her boyfriend, the father, wanted to get married. In fact, I got the impression Karen was close to breaking things off when she found out she was pregnant. He was a decent enough guy, she told me, but they really didn’t click enough to see a future together.

Shortly after Millie was born, Karen applied for an apartment through the city’s Subsidized Housing Program, which bases rent on income. She wasn’t making much money and couldn’t afford a place on her own.  Despite having a high school education, she couldn’t find a decent paying full time job. So, she ended up working retail or at fast food places, none of which provided full-time hours, much less a living wage. And, to boot, none of the jobs she found offered benefits.

Please don’t slide over the obvious here. Let’s remind ourselves that businesses do this on purpose and with purpose. The structure their workforce to avoid providing benefits to their employees. One of these employees is Karen. She is smart enough to know what was really going on. She told me once, “I am just a commodity.”

Five words that offer a simple yet brilliant analysis of how the power of wealth and the addiction to wanting more has stripped away workers’ humanity. I wanted to tell her I was going to quote her in a story or a blog posting, but I checked myself. Continue reading LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY

Ending Precarious Employment – A Game-Changer Strategy

Precarious Employment is the jargon people like me use to describe the employment conditions and experiences of a growing number of workers in our country. Here is what that jargon means:

Precarious employment is in effect sub-standard employment that offers low wages that typically are not enough to live on, and that does not offer basic benefits like sick leave, vacation leave, or even unpaid bereavement leave. Health and dental benefits are too often absent as a benefit to low-wage workers.

In Ontario, according to the Wellesley Institute, one in three workers do not have health and dental benefits. And the lower your income the more likely you will not have these benefits. In fact, the Institute reports that only one in five persons making $10,000 or less receive health and dental benefits from their employer. As well, the Institute reports that it is not until workers are earning $60,000 per  year that the majority have employer provided health and dental benefits (90%). See this link from Benefits Canada’s website.

Such employment also lacks in any form of job security. Workers can be sent home on a slow day, laid off for seasonal reasons, or simply let go if they are seen to be a “problem.” By “problem” I mean when a worker has to stay home to take care of her child in a work environment where such leave is not allowed. It might be allowed on the books (unpaid sick leave) but not so in practice. Precarious employment can also include work situations where worker safety is ignored, side-stepped, and seen as an unnecessary drain on revenues.

Most employers are likely decent employers, but precarious employment is not rare. Living Wage Canada reports that one-quarter of workers are low-income, the highest rate in the world. Precarious employment is estimated to affect 50% of Ontario workers, according to the Fight for 15 and Fairness collaboration.

A livable income is a game-changer for people. Sufficient income means better access to health services, to good food, to accessing services for our children, for planning for the future, and participating in the economy. A good job offering sufficient income reduces mental health problems, helps reduce stress in family relationships and can avoid the embarrassment, not to mention lack of opportunity, that children face at school when their parents cannot afford the extra fees required for participation in a sport or other school activity. People who earn a livable income can turn their attention from survival to contributing to their community and the lives of those they love and care about.

Imagine if there were more groups, more community leaders, more businesses, more citizens focused on stopping precarious employment and increasing the number of jobs that compensate people fairly.

Systems would change, new and effective policies would surface, employers would treat workers with dignity and people’s human rights would be met.

For more information:

Fight for $15 and Fairness (Ontario)
Fight for $15 (British Columbia)
Fight for $15 (Nova Scotia)
Fight for $15 (United States)

 

Precarious Work

When an employer won’t allow a worker more than 25 hours a week but requires that worker to be available for work 7 days a week, people become little more than commodities on the open market of Precarious Employment.

Lately I have made an effort to talk with folks that work at places like Shopper’s Drug Mart, Home Depot, and Save-on Foods and none of the workers I have talked to get an eight hour shift. My partner’s son just landed a job at 30 hours per week, no benefits of any kind.

Efforts like the Living Wage movement are gaining traction but large corporations seem slower on the uptake than do small business owners. When will the incessant desire to keep wages low by major businesses end up hurting the economy on which these low wage employers depend? There is a tipping point somewhere down the road – for everyone.

The Living Wage movement is a welcome Pan-Canadian effort to ensure that people have a “livable” income. We also need to collectively address the commodification of human beings who are put to work without any consideration for what happens when a worker or her child is sick, for the need to have a day off to rest and revitalize, not to mention deal with life’s practicalities.

Imagine being fired for being sick and missing a couple of days of work. Imagine working for $12.00 per hour in unsafe conditions and suffering from a workplace injury that could have been avoided. Imagine no health and dental care, no vacation time, nada.

Imagine being a part-time worker and not being able to seek other part-time work because your employer wants access to your entire work week to schedule you.

For too many Canadian workers there is no need to imagine. This is their reality.

In Ontario, there is a movement to get the minimum wage to $15 per hour and to bring in legislation and regulations that would address the unsavory trend of precarious work. Led by Fight for 15 and Fairness, the good folks there launched A Better Way Alliance and features videos of business leaders who also believe in the importance of decent work. Click here watch the videos.

Take a look at some great employers who do care and who do value their employers. They tend to be small employers and I have to wonder if they can treat their employees like human beings that matter, why can’t large businesses?

better alliance

Trends Leaders Cannot Ignore

In September I am doing six workshops at Tamarack’s Community Change Institute. One of the workshops is: Ten Trends Leaders Cannot Ignore. I am gathering data right now, investigating trends identified by others; there are so many trends we have to pay attention to that I am not yet certain of the ten I will showcase.  But here are a few trends I am tracking right now that I believe qualify for some substantive, authentic attention by our political, economic, and community leaders.

All the charts below are all based on data from Statistics Canada. Ask yourself what the implications are of these trends and what options we have to address them. While you might take issue with my commentary, the data is the data. Do you think these trends and patterns suggest good news for our society going forward?

wealth
I have written before about Wealth and Income Inequality. While the gap in Canada is not yet as severe as the worldwide trend, the gap is significant and it’s getting wider, as the chart below indicates. Continue reading Trends Leaders Cannot Ignore