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For low-income workers, Ontario’s minimum wage hike is life changing

UFCW Canada union member Rechev Browne poses for a portrait in Toronto, Friday June 2, 2017.

Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail

Rechev Browne has watched his life change as his pay increased. Eight years ago, he was earning $14 an hour as a No Frills supervisor in Toronto while studying at George Brown College.

"It was very difficult," said the 29-year-old Mr. Browne "I had a big OSAP loan. I had to move back with my family and take another part-time job to get by." He skipped meals out with friends and only bought No-Name groceries. Savings of any kind were impossible.

He now works a 40-hour week at $17 an hour, the result of a union contract two years ago. He says the pay increase has changed his lifestyle dramatically. He now helps support his girlfriend and her two kids, has moved out of his parents' house and rents a Toronto apartment for $2000 a month. He is paying off the remaining $2000 on his OSAP loan and saving $200 a month for emergencies. And he has a few dollars at the end of the month to donate to a local youth shelter.

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Mr. Browne says the announcement last week by the Ontario Liberals that the minimum wage will increase to $14 an hour in 2018 and $15 in 2019 is a "good start."

"It's still difficult to live," said Mr. Browne, who acknowledges he questions spending money on such things as gym memberships. "But people will now be earning $31,200 [a year]. It is levelling the floor."

"People want a secure future."

And Ontario is home to many low-income earners. Twenty-five per cent of Ontario employees – a total of 1.46 million people – earned less than $15 an hour last year.

Half of those low-income employees are women, says Debora De Angelis, national strategic campaigns co-ordinator at UFCW, a private-sector union. She says many of her female members are buoyed by the proposed minimum-wage increase. "We see it as a way of closing the gender gap," she said. "They'll be putting that money back into their communities."

Simon Black agrees. The assistant professor at Brock University's Centre for Labour Studies says it's a huge victory for the labour movement and the working class. "The minimum wage as it stands at $11.40 is a poverty wage."

But while the increase would be welcome news to many Ontarians, critics say it will still leave a lot of families close to the poverty line. According to the Ontario Living Wage Network, $15 an hour doesn't necessarily guarantee a living wage in the province. A living wage is the hourly rate needed for two income earners, working 37.5 hours per week year-round, to support a family of four that includes two young children, according to the network.

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Using data from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the only part of Ontario that even comes close is Waterloo, with a living wage of $15.42. Living in Toronto necessitates a wage of $18.52 an hour, according to the network.

Dawson Mihichuk gets "ten cents more than minimum wage" working seasonally and part-time in retail in Thunder Bay, Ont. The 18-year-old, second-year Lakehead University student is happy to have full-time work for the summer in a precarious job market, but he says his current rate of pay, which would total $23,900 a year if he worked year-round, means he has to make hard decisions about his lifestyle all the time.

"I have a roommate and we rent a condo together," he said, adding that his roommate's father owns the condo and has temporarily reduced their rent to $500 a month. "We both make minimum wage." The result of their limited income is more meals at home, frequently turning down the thermostat and fewer social outings.

Mr. Mihichuk says that if the minimum wage is increased, he's hoping to enjoy his life a little more. "We'll be actually able to turn the heat up, not have to wear sweaters all the time. Because hydro is bloody expensive and we do what we can to cut down on it."

He also says he hopes to rely less on his parents, who have been helping him pay tuition fees and living expenses.

Mr. Mihichuk, a political-science major, says the Liberal announcement caught him by surprise. "I was shocked that the Wynne government would contemplate anything that drastic," he said. "Raising the wage up will actually allow people to have financial goals."

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But he says he's concerned the proposal may end up being just that. The Ontario government will be sending it to committee for provincewide consultations over the summer.

"I'm excited but I'm also nervous," Mr. Mihichuk says. "There's an election coming up."

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