What is a living wage?

Movement to provide a living wage is catching on with some businesses

What is a living wage? Answers will vary widely. For someone who has made his bundle and is living off his investments, the dollar number will be higher than for one who is young, raising a family, and trying to have no debt and an expendable nickel at the end of each month.

A living wage in most minds differs in direct proportion to the manner to which one has become accustomed. The idea of an acceptable living wage will change, too, as one progresses up the ladder of responsibility and remuneration.

For this column, the term living wage (LW) will assume its position as the currently calculated hourly wage necessary to support a family of four with two adults working full time with one pre-school child and one school-age child. That calculation puts the current LW at $16.29/hour for District 69.

Some 50-plus years ago that figure would have put me over the moon when my husband came home after landing a new job and said, simply, “Seventy-five”.

“A week?” I squeaked.

“No, no … 75 cents an hour.”

With a lot of family and friendly subsidization, our family of almost-four squeaked along … for awhile. We were lucky; we had some safety nets. But that was then.

Today’s LW, calculated with today’s costs in mind includes only the expenses necessary to maintain a reasonably sheltered, clothed, fed, safe and healthy life. The biggest expense is childcare, to allow both parents to work full time. This LW does not allow a family to own a house, save for retirement or children’s education, or service debt. A LW is a bare bones wage.

The organization working toward a LW in B.C. is First Call, a provincial child and youth agency based in Vancouver and it’s a facilitator of LW issues. This does seem fitting when B.C. has the highest child poverty rate in the country.

Last spring First Call presented its mandate to several local, interested groups. This was followed, in the fall, by an area-wide campaign directed towards employers, community groups, educators and local governments.

In B.C., private businesses can adopt a LW for their employees, and Canada’s largest credit union, Vancity has done so, along with United Way of Lower Mainland, Now Communications, and Eclipse. Here, School District 69 has adopted, in theory, the LW principle for its non-teaching employees, and the City of Parksville may be the next to get on board.

The LW concept is not an easy one to apply across the board. For large businesses and/or corporations, providing a LW can be a not-too-desperate move to ask their CEOs and shareholders to share some of the wealth. For small and starting-up businesses a few dollars here or there can make or break an owner.

The advantages of a LW are a more caring, hard-working, less stressed, healthy and loyal employee with less turnover and re-training costs and a healthier, more satisfied, motivated, ambitious and hopeful employee.

The idea of a living wage is not easy, or even possible, for all to accept, but it’s value is evident and it behooves communities and multi-nationals alike to work toward the changes and/or compromises that will make a LW a fait accompli.

Nancy Whelan is a regular

News columnist.