$16.77 per hour is how much workers in Saskatoon need to earn just to afford the basics of life. But why would a business pay more than the legislated minimum wage?
The Better Good's owner Laura Neufeld recently told Upstream of her experience as a Living Wage employer, and why there are concretely positive reasons for businesses to pay workers what they need to live.
Upstream: What is The Better Good all about?
Laura Neufeld: We are a small, locally owned shop, and we've been in Saskatoon since 2009. The store focuses on environmentally and socially sustainable products — things that are organic, fair trade, made from recycled reusable material, local things and handmade things. We also do a lot of community events. We host free yoga every Sunday for four months of the year, and we do a yard and home tour showcasing environmentally friendly yards and gardens. Another way we are involved in the community is by giving 10% of our profits back to local charitable organizations.
U: How did you find out about the Living Wage concept?
LN: Facebook! That’s the quick answer, I was scrolling through Facebook feeds and saw some article about living wage. So I read this article and it was specifically about Vancouver and calculating its living wage. It was a comprehensive description of what living wage was, it had some examples of businesses that had switched to paying a living wage, and discussed how it was calculated for the city of Vancouver. It also listed the living wage for different large cities across Canada, and there was nothing in the article listed for Saskatchewan.
U: How did you come up with your figure?
LN: We did an average of what we were seeing from across the provinces. We settled at 18 dollars, but instead of calculating what we thought was a living wage we looked at our accounting from the year before. We looked at the ratio of what we were making as owners compared to what we are paying out in salaries to our staff.
We looked at our accounts and said, “there is about 15,000 dollars here that we feel like we could take from our own personal income and disperse it among our staff”, and that ended up being 25% more than they were making. To us, higher on the list of priorities was having a fair and equitable business model, and having our employees’ hourly wage closer to a living wage.
U: What changes have you seen in your employees since the change to a living wage?
"They want to be creative, they want to have a role in the business and have more invested in it"
LN: It’s been about a year since we converted their wages into a living wage. There is definitely a feeling of comradery or family, an environment of mutual respect and having them really invested in the business, so it’s not just a position that they go to and punch numbers. I think that they really feel valued as they are compensated quite well for the work they are doing and so all of them have stayed on as staff. It definitely benefits staff retention, not having to put time to hiring and training.
U: Have the demands on you changed since you implemented living wage?
LN: Absolutely. The employees have picked some tasks — they have strengths like any work place. One person is a little better at social media and likes writing blog posts. That was missing before and didn’t happen at all. They want to be creative, they want to have a role in the business and have more invested in it and we have definitely seen that. I also have enjoyed more free time this year because the team is working harder and getting more efficient, getting more done then they might have before.
U: Did you know what the needs of your employees were before giving them a living wage?
LN: I felt like I knew their needs because I know them, but we did ask them “what living wage means to you,” and “what would you do with the added 25% income?”. One woman is super excited about growing her own business. She wasn’t able to do this before as she was a single mother and did not have an ideal day care situation.
Again, the other benefit is healthier staff, and not just in terms of their bodies, but also healthier in terms of paying for good child care that is close to their home. They are not late coming into work, because they didn’t have to drive to a really cheap day care across town. It just means that they have a much comfortable life and they are happier. It’s like their whole self is being cared for, and that impacts us for sure. Everyday living stress is absolutely going to impact the work environment and the business and how they relate to customers.
"If you can’t afford to pay your employees a living wage are you really a viable business?"
U: Would it impact your business to be branded as a Living Wage employer?
LN: Absolutely, I think it is exciting! I know many of the businesses on Broadway and I don’t think any one of them know that we are a living wage business, and that we have had positive change happen. We have not failed, and all that really has happened is that there are more people in our community that are better off now.
U: Is living wage viable for small businesses in Saskatoon?
LN: Yes, I can say that with confidence. There are varying sizes of businesses and I think that there are always chances to pay your employees what is required to live. Living wage should be a minimum really. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to pay the people that you work with what it costs to live.
I also think about the word viable, if you can’t afford to pay your employees a living wage are you really a viable business? I always bring it back to personal and moral responsibility; it's uncomfortable for me to live in a way that is not fair to the people that I am around, but if I could have a role with my business to impact change, I absolutely want to be a part of that.
Learn more and get involved at Living Wage Saskatoon, where you can access the Business Case for a Living Wage in Saskatoon report, co-authored by Upstream’s Charles Plante. Living Wage Saskatoon is a growing initiative, led by the Saskatoon Poverty Reduction Partnership.
Photographs by Kayle Neis.