N.S. workers ‘running in place’ as wages fail to meet cost of living: report

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Nova Scotia wages failing to meet cost of living: report
The gap between Nova Scotia’s minimum wage and what's considered to be a living wage is widening even more. A new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives finds that nearly half of Nova Scotians are making less than a living wage, with minimum wage earners needing at least another 10 dollars to meet their basic needs. Alicia Draus has the details – Sep 7, 2022

The gap between Nova Scotia’s minimum wage and what’s considered a “living wage” continues to widen.

Minimum wage earners in the Halifax area should now be making at least $10 more per hour to meet their needs, according to a new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The centre, which released its annual report on living wages Wednesday, pegged the 2022 living wage for the Halifax area at $23.50.

Read more: Nova Scotia’s ‘low-wage economy’ and the impact it’s having on people

The living wage is calculated based on how much a family of four, with two parents working 35 hours a week, would have to earn to cover all necessities and have a decent quality of life.

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“Working people want to work to live, not live to work,” the report said.

That number is $22.40 in the Annapolis Valley, $20 in Cape Breton, $20.40 in the northern regions and $22.55 in the southern regions.

The current minimum wage in Nova Scotia is $13.35 per hour. The province has previously announced it intends to raise the wage to $13.60 in October and then to $15 an hour by April 2024 – a plan that is “too slow,” according to the report.

Read more: N.S. government accepts recommended minimum wage increase to $13.35 per hour

It said the living wage increased between five per cent and eight per cent since last year, due to cost increases for shelter, food and gas, as well as “little improvement” in tax credits and income transfers.

“Life should not be a constant struggle,” the report said. “Yet, for many Nova Scotians, that is their reality, and the challenge to make ends meet has gotten even tougher this year.”

In an interview, Christine Saulnier, the report’s author, said the current minimum wage is “not adequate at all” and a substantial increase is long overdue.

“Minimum wage should be about protecting employees, and at this point it’s really exploitation,” said Saulnier. “If you are not paying higher than $13.35 an hour, your employees are struggling.”

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‘Running in place’

The report said nearly 50 per cent of workers in Nova Scotia earn less than the living wage, with women and people of colour more likely to work in low-wage settings.

Between June 2021 and June 2022, consumer prices increased 9.3 per cent, rental costs increased 8.2 per cent year over year, food costs increased 8.8 per cent, and gas prices in June were 60.5 per cent higher than they were the previous year.

“Dealing with cost increases is possible if your income is keeping up. That is not the case for the average worker in Nova Scotia,” the report said, noting that average weekly earnings increased only by 4.1 per cent from January to June 2021 to the same time period this year.

Read more: Labour Day rally in Halifax highlights ongoing wage, paid sick leave concerns

“This gap between increases in wages and inflation represents an actual cut to wages of nearly five per cent on average, which is significant, especially when we have the second lowest average weekly earnings in the country after PEI,” it said.

According to the report, the median overall wage growth between 2001 and 2019 was only 11.3 per cent, adjusting for inflation – from $18.75 to $20.87, in 2021 dollars.

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“Workers have been running in place for a long time, struggling to provide for themselves and support a family, even during decades when inflation was relatively low,” it said.

“Given current inflation rates, workers need immediate support, and we must ensure they share in the prosperity they produce.”

The report said a living wage is just “one tool to help low-wage workers bridge the gap between income and costs.”

Read more: N.S. workers say wages, ‘shut up, do your job’ mentality driving labour shortage

The report called on the province to raise the minimum wage, strengthen its employment standards by introducing paid sick days for all workers, increase government benefits, reform the taxation system, improve access to child care and expand services like public transportation and affordable housing.

“Solutions need to address the gap between the costs and needed income by tackling both the income- and the costs-side,” it said. “Governments can lessen the load on employers’ shoulders by directly providing more income benefits to employees or by investing in lowering the costs for working people.”

It added that employers also must increase their wages and address working conditions to attract and retain staff.

“To build a province where everyone can reach their full potential requires employers to do their part and pay wages compatible with supporting workers to enjoy a good quality life,” it said.

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Read more: N.S. has highest undergraduate tuition by province, Quebec lowest: StatsCan

Suzanne MacNeil, spokesperson for the group Justice for Workers, said labour organizations have long called on government to raise the minimum wage. For years, the call was for $15 per hour — but she says the minimum wage should now be set at $20 an hour.

“There are certain things we all need to figure out — how to put a roof over our heads, how to put food on the table — all these things costs money and it seems the prices keep going up and up,” she said.

In a statement, the Nova Scotia Department of Labour acknowledged that Nova Scotians deserve to be paid a fair wage.

However, it said many businesses have had a difficult time during the pandemic and are still recovering, and it’s “important to take a balanced approach that supports both employees and employers.”

The minimum wage review committee is set to meet again in the fall and will submit its annual review and recommendations.

— with files from Alicia Draus

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