November 29, 2023

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Vancouver council blasted for abandoning living wage commitment

Opinion: After Vancouver council’s decision to reduce minimum pay for lowest paid workers, labour leaders watching to see whether other employers — like the Vancouver school board — could follow suit.

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Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim and his ABC party ran and won last year on a platform of finding “efficiencies” in the city’s budget.

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A lot of people were unhappy to learn this week at least some of those efficiencies will come from the pockets of the city’s lowest-paid workers.

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Politicians and labour groups are criticizing the ABC-majority council for abandoning the city’s commitment to paying a living wage to all employees and contractors. The decision was made in a January closed-door council meeting and publicly revealed this week.

The living wage is calculated for different regions of the province, representing the amount two adults working full-time must earn to support the bare-bones needs of a family of four, including rental housing, clothing and food. It doesn’t cover debt repayment, savings for retirement, or the costs of caring for an elderly relative.

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The most recent hourly living wage for Metro Vancouver was calculated in November at $24.08 for the coming year. Vancouver council directed city staff in January to “establish a revised approach” implementing a five-year “moving average living wage to be used as the standard to pay fair wages to direct employees and contracted service providers.”

A “five-year moving average” means workers must pay for groceries and rent this year based on a calculation of average living wages since 2018, said Anastasia French, manager of Living Wage for Families B.C., a program of the Vancity Community Foundation that pushes both private and public sector employers to make the commitment.

Vancouver’s change would reduce the wage for its lowest paid workers and contractors to at least $20.90 an hour, French said. If the city had continued its commitment this year, a full-time worker earning a living wage at 35 hours a week would make about $43,825, she said, but that worker earning the five-year rolling average would earn about $38,038.

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“So they’re $5,000 worse off a year, or two months’ rent,” French said.

French said she had heard concerns from Vancouver city staff about the 17.35 per cent year-over-year increase in the most recent living wage, an increase largely attributed to the rising cost of food and rent.

“But we explained: ‘You’re not looking at a 17 per cent increase in all your labour costs,” she said. “It’s not about giving everyone a 17 per cent pay increase, it’s just about bringing those people at the bottom up.”

Council decided to drop the living wage commitment for its lowest-paid workers the same month that a 7.3 per cent pay hike took effect for the mayor and council.

The pay raise, first reported in January by Glacier Media’s Mike Howell, means Vancouver’s 10 councillors will earn $98,585 this year, not including expense allowances or compensation from Metro Vancouver duties. The mayor’s pay jumps to $199,143 this year from the $185,594 allotted last year.

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The ABC-majority council did not approve the pay raise, which was set in motion several years ago by a previous council after recommendations from an independent panel.

Considering what a difficult and demanding job it is, many Vancouverites might argue councillors are not overpaid and perhaps are underpaid.

But former Vancouver councillor Jean Swanson, a longtime anti-poverty activist, thinks it’s “disgusting” for council to accept a pay bump while paving the way for lower wages for low-income people. Swanson said that while the current council did not initiate this year’s pay raise, they also did not stop it.

“They could have voted to reduce it, which we voted to do during COVID,” said Swanson, who says she gave away tens of thousands of dollars of her salary each year on council between 2018 and 2022, everything above the city’s average income.

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Council discussions about pay are generally held in private and this living wage decision was made at an in camera meeting Jan. 31, 2023. Most such decisions are released publicly eventually, and this one was posted Thursday.

After the decision’s public release, OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle said that while she is not allowed to discuss the votes of other council members, she could disclose her own vote, which was against the decision to dump the living wage commitment.

The decision only affects the lowest paid workers, including cleaners and security guards, Boyle said, “and these are folks that we celebrated during the pandemic, whose important work we have very recently been recognizing. I think it’s great for us to clap and cheer for workers, but we should pay them enough to live in the city. That is the best form of recognition we can provide.”

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The other two non-ABC members of council also spoke in support of the living wage policy after the decision’s release.

Green Coun. Adriane Carr said Friday: “I have always been an advocate for living wage, and that hasn’t changed.”

Green Coun. Pete Fry said: “Unfortunately I can’t get into too many details …. But I didn’t support that decision.”

Sim was not available for an interview Friday, but sent an email saying: “We not only value the contributions of our staff, we are also focused on ensuring that our compensation rates are fair and that they reflect the cost of living in Vancouver.”

The vast majority of city staff and the majority of city service providers are already compensated at or above the 2023 living wage rate, Sim said, and the five-year rolling average will “smooth out annual fluctuations for workers and contract employees.”

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“We remain hopeful,” Sim said, that Living Wage for Families B.C. will continue to engage with the city and “take variations in rate implementation into consideration in its annual calculations to allow organizations that use this more practicable approach to continue to be certified.”

Warren Williams, president of CUPE 15, which represents almost 6,000 employees of the City of Vancouver park board and Vancouver school board, said he is not yet sure which, if any, of his union’s members could be affected by the change. He is meeting next week with city management to discuss it further.

“This just opens the door for contractors to put in lowball offers to take over the work that’s already being done by unionized workers,” Williams said.

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Now, he said, several labour leaders are looking to see if Vancouver council’s decision has “a ripple effect” on other employers.

One of those being watched now is the Vancouver school board, which was only last year certified as a living wage employer.

VSB school trustee Suzie Mah, the only member of COPE on the board, said Friday she has not yet heard anything about the school district reconsidering its commitment. But Mah said Friday she is now “on high alert,” considering ABC has the largest presence on the school board.

“I am extremely concerned,” Mah said.

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