The reference was buried deep in a closing communiqué issued following the latest session of the Council of Atlantic Premiers last month in Halifax. In fact, it was located in the third last paragraph of the two-page press release detailing joint efforts to grow the regional economy, create jobs and streamline regulatory co-operation.
Near the end, premiers finally attempted to address the elephant in the room – imminent major increases to minimum wages in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and other provinces. Many of them will reach $15 an hour in early 2019.
The four premiers agreed, “to explore opportunities to align minimum wage rates in the region,” and reach a goal of attaining predictability and consistency throughout Atlantic Canada.
Will a $15-minimum wage attract even more Atlantic Canadian workers to Ontario or Alberta? To keep workers here, will businesses be forced to pay substantially higher wages?
Last year, there was considerable angst in the Atlantic business community over minimal, minimum wage increases. P.E.I. now has the highest rate at $11.25 an hour, followed by New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador at $11. Nova Scotia has the lowest wage – $10.35 for inexperienced workers and $10.85 for experienced workers.
A valid complaint of businesses has been unexpected increases to the minimum wage. They must budget and it’s a lesson that Atlantic premiers seem to have finally learned. There is a Maritime commitment to adjust minimum wages once a year on April 1, generally tied to the consumer price index; and the four Atlantic provinces are exploring opportunities to align rates.
Ontario’s minimum wage leaped to $14 this month. It created turmoil in the fast food industry with some employers reducing employees’ benefits to pay for the increases. The reaction was swift. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne called those employers bullies and consumer boycotts in support of workers forced some employers to back down.
Polls indicate most of Ontario residents support the minimum wage increases. And a surprising number of Ontario businesses have embraced the higher wage levels as well. They feel if they can retain an experienced workforce, then paying a higher wage is a sound and acceptable cost of doing business.
The premiers have found a key ally in the respected Atlantic Provinces Economic Council (APEC), which has endorsed the concept of predictability and consistency in setting minimum wages.
Recently APEC released a report card, which echoed the premiers’ council views.
Atlantic alignment would require that P.E.I. hold or slow its rate increases while other provinces, especially Nova Scotia, catch up. That prospect has already drawn the ire of a P.E.I. anti-poverty group, which says Island workers would suffer from such an agreement. P.E.I. has always felt that it must pay a higher minimum wage rate to retain workers here, especially in fisheries and agricultural industries.
Atlantic premiers must fast track a regional strategy to assist both workers and employers amid this growing minimum wage imbalance threat from other regions of the country.