When the min­i­mum wage goes up, will the sky fall?

Leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee hears the ups and downs on Lib­er­als’ Bill 148 dur­ing hear­ing in Hamilton

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - JEFF MAHONEY

Chicken Lit­tle should be get­ting roy­al­ties from Thurs­day’s Hamilton stop on the min­i­mum wage trav­el­ling road show that Queen’s Park is tour­ing through On­tario.

“The sky is fall­ing” was the op­er­a­tive id­iom, in an im­pas­sioned, some­times testy de­bate, as the cir­cuit ver­sion of the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Fi­nance and Eco­nomic Af­fairs heard sub­mis­sions at the Sher­a­ton Ho­tel.

Poverty groups, small busi­ness as­so­ci­a­tions, union del­e­ga­tions, man­u­fac­tur­ers, equal pay ad­vo­cates and oth­ers weighed in: Can On­tario af­ford to raise the min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour by 2019 (as per the Wynne gov­ern­ment’s pro­posed Bill 148)? Can it af­ford not to?

Kitch­ener Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive MPP Michael Har­ris ar­gued On­tario busi­ness was blind­sided by the min­i­mum wage in­crease.

He said it hadn’t been on the ta­ble in the con­sul­ta­tive Chang­ing Work­places Re­view, look­ing at pre­car­i­ous em­ploy­ment, that led up to the leg­is­la­tion.

He painted what some at the meet­ing started call­ing a “sky is fall­ing” sce­nario of dire ef­fects — job cuts, busi­ness clo­sures — if an in­crease goes through by 2019.

Har­ris then asked Ritch Why­man, who’d been speak­ing for Hamilton $15 and Fair­ness Com-

mit­tee, if he was con­cerned that the in­crease had come out of the blue.

Glar­ing as though in dis­be­lief, Why­man shot back with a don’task-me tone, “You’re the politi­cian! You’re the mem­ber of a po­lit­i­cal party that tells you this and does that, ran on a plat­form and then did some­thing dif­fer­ent that you hadn’t talked about,” ini­ti­at­ing a freeze on min­i­mum wage un­der Mike Har­ris.

“Th­ese repet­i­tive quotes on cut­backs, clo­sures, etc.,” he added. “The sky’s been fall­ing (on the work­ing poor) for decades now! Walk down the street and see the ef­fects of a 10-year freeze on min­i­mum wage.”

Later James Rilett, vice-pres­i­dent, Cen­tral Canada, of Restau­rants Canada, told the hear­ing, “It’s easy to brush this aside as doom and gloom but what if I told you your mort­gage pay­ments were go­ing up 30 per cent (the $15 an hour mark rep­re­sents a 30-plus per cent in­crease from the ex­ist­ing min­i­mum wage)?

“This is the frus­tra­tion of food op­er­a­tors. They need time to re­struc­ture their busi­nesses.”

Hamilton Moun­tain MPP Monique Taylor (NDP) coun­tered, “I was a server when no smok­ing came into ef­fect and it was ‘The doors are clos­ing; we’re never gonna sur­vive.’ Yes, there are hur­dles but they thought the sky was fall­ing then and they sur­vived.”

Rilett scold­ingly par­ried that the smok­ing was phased in, some restau­rants did go un­der, adding that her tone did not help the con­ver­sa­tion.

“To say ‘the sky is fall­ing’ is to be­lit­tle busi­nesses that peo­ple spent their life cre­at­ing.”

Then Lib­eral MPP Mike Colle joined in say­ing, “‘The sky is fall­ing’ is not com­ing from us (sup­port­ers of the wage in­crease); it’s com­ing from busi­ness.”

The de­bate of­ten came down to val­ues — do we want the peo­ple who look af­ter our chil­dren and our el­derly to be liv­ing be­low the poverty line? On the other hand, asked busi­ness, is it too much, too fast? What about the process?

Alana Baltzar of Hamilton Or­ga­niz­ing for Poverty Elim­i­na­tion, told about work­ing in a va­ri­ety store be­ing held up and cer­tain she would die, then not get­ting the next day off.

Many for the in­crease ar­gued it

would in­crease peo­ple’s abil­ity to spend at lo­cal busi­nesses.

Ramesh Saf­fri of the On­tario Con­ve­nience Store As­so­ci­a­tion coun­tered that it would be a wash be­cause prices would have to go up to meet in­creased pay­roll.

The com­mit­tee heard from such other or­ga­ni­za­tions as the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Re­duc­tion, Canadian Fran­chise As­so­ci­a­tion, So­cial Plan­ning and Re­search Coun­cil of Hamilton, Uni­for (union), Canadian Man­u­fac­tur­ers and Ex­porters On­tario and Health­care Of­fice and Pro­fes­sional Em­ploy­ees Union Lo­cal 2220.

The NDPers, though get­ting be­hind

the leg­is­la­tion, joined the Tories at the meet­ing in call­ing Bill 148 a cyn­i­cal vote-grab at­tempt by the Lib­er­als as they face an elec­tion.

Bill 148 is a labour re­form pack­age, amend­ing the em­ploy­ment stan­dards and labour re­la­tions acts, and also in­cludes pro­vi­sions for equal pay for part-time work, emer­gency leave, more paid va­ca­tion, card cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in union drives and more.

The com­mit­tee holds its fi­nal meet­ing in Toronto Fri­day. It is set to hear from 19 groups.

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