– Esquimalt Council becomes one of only a few municipalities in Canada to adopt a living wage policy (sort of) despite community-wide opposition.
Last Monday, Council experienced one of its less stellar moments of their entire three year term. They got bogged down in a divisive debate and a split 4-3 vote in favour of a policy that, while purporting to help alleviate poverty, does nothing of the sort. The futility culprit is something called a Living Wage policy.
The policy was devised by the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria which calculates that two full-time working parents of two children in the Capital Region need to earn at least $17.30 an hour to pay for basics such as shelter, clothing, transportation and food.
Who can argue with that? We all know that the CRD is an expensive place to live and we all struggle to pay our bills. But, our lives certainly wouldn’t be made any better or affordable if we had hefty new property tax increases to worry about in order to heavily subsidize the wages of people working both directly and indirectly for Esquimalt. That list would include municipal staff, teenage employees, casual workers, and contract workers belonging to private companies that do business with Esquimalt.
“For me, supporting a living wage is about making sure Esquimalt is a healthy and sustainable community and one where everyone is treated fairly,” said Councillor Randall Garrison, the policy’s main proponent. “How can we justify the fact that many Esquimalt residents go to work every day, work hard, and yet still don’t earn enough to provide the basics for their family?”
Mayor Barb Desjardins, however, doesn’t see it that way.
“The adoption of this policy as it stands shows an initial small cost to the municipality,” said Desjardins. “However, with a rise in the (collective agreement) base pay level comes upward pressure on other pay levels which would present significant increases in costs overall.”
“We are a small community within a large urban area. It is my concern that this policy may significantly affect who will be willing to do business with our municipality. Not because the business doesn’t want to pay these wages but because they can’t. Other municipalities do not have the same policy and therefore business can be achieved elsewhere,” added Desjardins.
Many in the community agree with Mayor Desjardins. Members of the Esquimalt Residents Association (including yours truly) and the Esquimalt Chamber of Commerce came out in droves to raise their opposition to the policy. Essentially, as taxpayers, we did not want our Council to embrace a policy that would leave us holding a bill with a giant question mark on it.
When it became apparent that Garrison’s broader policy, along with its serious financial implications, was not going to pass, Councillor Meagan Brame and Councilor Ali Gaul intervened with an “alternative” living wage policy, a watered down version that cannot be applied to municipal employee wages, but would still apply to private sector workers employed by companies that perform contracts more than six months long or worth more than $100,000. However, it was pointed out that this requirement already currently exists within the municipality’s collective agreement section on contracting out. The new policy also stipulates that council should review the policy’s hourly rate, costs and benefits every three years.
Hence, two and half convoluted hours later, Council opted to adopt a living wage policy that was essentially a policy about nothing. The elder –and wiser- members of Council (Desjardins, Lynda Hundleby & Don Linge) were visibly frustrated as they cast their votes in opposition.
“I don’t get it,” declared Councillor Lynda Hundleby in her characteristically soft spoken manner. Hundbley’s puzzlement was shared by the dozens of local residents and business owners in attendance.
“This was a tough night for all of Council,” said Councillor Meagan Brame. “There were two definite sides to this issue. (The original proposal) was not an option for me when I heard the public input on spending no money. I heard them and that is why I made this really a no cost to township policy.”
“Philosophically though, I know that people need to be paid more to make ends meet in our region. I think that it is good for us as councillors to know what is needed to live before going to budget – it helps us know where our priorities lie,” added Brame. “My motion was put there so that we could be aware of the issues, but not make it a tax burden to our already strapped residents. It was a compromise – acknowledging the struggles we all face when it comes to finances.”
“I supported Councillor Brame’s motion because she listened to the concerns brought forward from the public and attempted to address each of them directly within the motion,” said Councillor Ali Gaul. “I also supported her motion because the Living Wage calculation and subsequent discussion has given me valuable insight into the affordability of our community as we approach the budget. The public input has been significant, passionate and divided. It hasn’t been an easy process, but I believe it has been a valuable one.”
The final staff report for a revised Living Wage policy in Esquimalt is expected to return to Council in March. With pressing issues such as the annual budget & property taxes, selecting a new policing contract, and continuing the fight against the CRD sewage treatment plan, our Council would do much better to focus on the issues that we actually elected them to deal with rather than drowning themselves in the latest social policy du jour that we clearly cannot afford to waste our money nor time on.