Tough bill to swallow
To balance low-income, small business needs, this doesn’t fit the bill
Ontario Bill 148, dubbed the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, got its first reading in the Ontario Legislature last week. The bill is intended to amend the Labour Relations Act and to make income and employee rights more fair, especially for those in precarious work scenarios.
It’s a proposal that provides an increase ofbenefits to a lot of people in Prince Edward County, where many employees work several jobs to make ends meet.
It’s also one that has a lot of drawbacks in Prince Edward County, where the majority of commerce and employment comes from small businesses.
The bill, as it stands today, would raise the minimum wage substantially, with a 20 cent hourly raise in October followed by a $2.40 hourly raise in January, 2018 and a further $1 raise in 2019 to bring the minimum wage to $15 hourly for the majority of adult workers. The raise would be nearly proportional for students under 18, who would end up with a minimum of $14.10 in 2019, and a shallower increase for liquor servers, who would see a raise to $12.20 in January and to $13.05 the following year.
There would be other benefits for employees, too. Casual, part-time and seasonal workers would be paid the same as full-time staff, so would those who found work through an employment agency. Employees would be paid a minimum for some cancelled work hours, be given more protection for discussing salary or refusing work.
Public holidays would mean mandatory pay, and those with five or more years with the same employer would be given an extra week of vacation. Employers would be compelled to allow for sick leave, with at least two days paid. Requiring doctor’s notes would be prohibited.
Emergency leave would be expanded to incidents of domestic violence or sexual assault, and other personal and family leave options would be expanded.
Those who are misclassified as contract workers would be given the rights of paid employees, including insurance.
All this would be enforced through a commitment to hire 175 more enforcement officers and perform audits, with stricter penalties for contravening the act.
In a place like Prince Edward County, this is a difficult pill to swallow. The County is full of part-time and seasonal workers earning minimum wage. Even at a full-time, year-round job, the minimum wage is well below the poverty line—not sufficient to cover the basic costs of living, and certainly doesn’t allow for retirement savings.
But those who employ people at minimum wage or close to it are, for the most part, small and micro businesses with slender margins. Owners will often forfeit their own wages for employees when sales are tight.
There is also the potential for a domino effect. As specialized and senior employees’ wages come closer to the minimum, employers will be compelled to raise incomes across the board to retain their employees.
When the bill was first announced last week, small business groups across the province protested it. The province argued that providing more money to the lowest income earners would encourage spending and be good for the economy. But in an economy dominated by tiny businesses in a seasonal cycle dependent on tourism, it’s hard to know whether that balance could be achieved.
Prince Edward County Chamber of Tourism and Commerce executive director Emily Cowan says the ministry of labour held a news conference with local chambers of commerce across the province to provide details about the bill and allow each organization the opportunity to pose questions.
She’s also sending concerns and comments from small business owners to Ontario’s chamber of commerce to contribute to a discussion that will, she hopes, change the bill into something more manageable for small businesses.
She respects the spirit of the bill, recognizing that the minimum wage is not a liveable income, especially for those who are also raising children. But Cowan says small business owners who are struggling to offer work in a respectful and ethical way are being swept up in legislation meant to penalize companies with unfair employment practices.
“Businesses who are taking that risk and paying above and beyond minimum wage to their employees because they’ve earned it, because they’re trying to… offer more, now all of a sudden they have to go even further out of their comfort zone,” says Cowan. “You’re really setting them back. You’re putting more pressure on small businesses who are really trying to do the right thing for their employees in the first place.
“There are rogue employers out there. There are people who are not treating their employees with respect,” says Cowan. “But really, the jump in the amount that you pay someone who’s on minimum wage in such a short period of time is huge. Over 20 percent increase in wage. It’s big. It’s scary for small businesses around here.”
Cowan is concerned the proposed timing could hurt the Chamber’s strategy of stretching the County’s tourism shoulder seasons and creating more year-round employment opportunities.
“The thing that worries me the most is that change is happening on January first, coming into the quietest time for small businesses in Prince Edward County,” says Cowan. “Seasonally speaking, all of a sudden you’re increasing your payroll by 20 per cent. That’s going to make the difference between a place deciding to stay open for the winter and a place deciding to close. And that’s already a tough decision for small businesses to make.”
The bill is only in its beginning phase. It has not been passed into law, and Cowan suspects, like many bills, it will undergo significant transformation before it gets there.
“They are raising the stakes quite a bit with this part of the bill. It’s not like this whole thing is horrible and get rid of it. There are parts of it that make perfect sense,” says Cowan. “It’s the right now, in six months everything’s going to change situation that’s a harder pill to swallow. So there are a lot of good things in it that hopefully will stay, but there are also some tough parts that we’re hoping to alter. Even just a gentler incline.”