‘Labour is labour’: Why Hamilton students are fighting for a living wage

The City of Hamilton pays a living wage to all employees, with the exception of about 200 part-time student workers — and that has advocates calling for a raise
By Justin Chandler - Published on Mar 04, 2021
Brock Bodo had a summer job with the City of Hamilton in 2019. (Courtesy of Brock Bodo)

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HAMILTON — In 2019, McMaster student Brock Bodo worked a summer job with the City of Hamilton, pulling weeds, carrying soil, and planting flowers. “It was a lot of work,” he says. “But it was one of the few jobs where I could get full-time hours.” The problem, he explains, is that he was barely earning minimum wage, then $14 per hour. “That’s just not enough to cover a lot of my expenses.”

Despite coming from a household with two working parents, Bodo, one of four siblings, says it’s hard for him to cover his student debt and expenses. He’s concerned that he won’t be able to live in Hamilton after he graduates: “I can’t pay off my debts until well after I’m in school, and I’ll have to look for housing in a place that’s cheaper.”

To help make life in the city more affordable, Bodo and other advocates say, the City of Hamilton should pay all employees — students included — the designated living wage for the city: $16.45 per hour. They say this is particularly important now, as pandemic job losses have disproportionately affected younger workers, women, and part-time workers, and low-income neighbourhoods have seen more COVID-19 infections than their higher-income counterparts.

TVO Explainer: What is a living wage?

According to the Ontario Living Wage Network, the living wage is how much a worker must earn hourly to earn to cover basic expenses (such as food, clothing, shelter, child care, transportation and medical expenses) and participate in their community (for example, through recreation or a “modest” vacation). The calculation is based on what two adults working full-time need to support themselves and two young children. It does not include retirement savings, debt repayment, home ownership, or savings for children’s education. The amount varies by community.

As it stands, Hamilton pays a living wage to all employees, with the exception of about 200 part-time student workers, who receive either $14.68 per hour (minimum wage in Ontario is $14.25) or — depending on their position — a percentage of what full-time workers in comparable positions are paid.

Tom Cooper, the director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction and part of the living-wage network, says the intention is to ensure that “people are earning enough to participate in the community, not just survive.” Anthony Marco, president of the Hamilton District Labour Council, says that “a living wage isn’t fantastic” but that it’s enough to stay above the poverty line: “You’re not going to be storing money away in the Cayman Islands by making a living wage.”

When a motion to pay all city employees a living wage came before Hamilton’s city council, in March 2020, it was defeated 10-4. At the time, staff told councillors it would cost about $445,000 to bring all non-union and unionized summer students up to a living wage that budget cycle. Some councillors asked why students needed a living wage, as people in post-secondary institutions do not typically have families. Councillor Terry Whitehead said the motion amounted to asking middle-class families to foot the bill for other people’s tuition, calling it “socialism at its worst.”

Whitehead says he understands that some students do support families — and that he approves of targeted supports for those who may be struggling — but he doesn’t think student poverty is as bad as some say. “I was living off Kraft Dinner when I was a kid. The debt burden is bigger now. I agree. And that’s a long-range issue we’ve got to look at. But in the short term, what’s the poverty?”

Sharoni Mitra, a graduate student at McMaster and the president of CUPE Local 3906, which represents academic workers at the university, in February told council the city should pay students a living wage. She says people would be surprised by the stories of poverty and precarious work students in her union share. “Long story short: tuition keeps going up, the cost of living keeps going up, and wages aren’t,” Mitra says. (A 2018 study of Hamilton millennials by McMaster’s Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario research group concluded that such factors as precarious employment are on the rise and contributing to growing poverty that harms the millennial generation.)

Whitehead is also concerned that paying students more might make it tougher to hire as many. But, according to Hamilton mayor Fred Eisenberger, that would not be the case, because the budget could be increased, as happens when wages in other departments go up. “It is, in my view, inexcusable, that anyone that’s working a full-time job isn’t able to live off that wage,” Eisenberger says. He adds, though, that “given the fiscal challenges that we’re all facing, it’s probably going to be a difficult year to achieve more success on that front.” (The draft 2021-22 budget was finalized March 3 and sent to council, which will vote to ratify it on March 31. It contained no measures related to a living wage for student workers.)

Eisenberger says he’s not concerned about the city paying students who are better off a couple of dollars more per hour if it would mean helping those in need. He suggests that, if such concerns remains an obstacle to passing a motion, means-testing could be used to determine who might receive a higher wage.

Bodo says he wouldn’t be happy with the City means-testing student workers: “City councillors can value that work paying students a living wage, or they can not. Just because a student may have a family with a higher income does not make their work less valuable.”

Kate Rybczynski, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo, likens paying students less than non-students to a 1939 policy by the American electric company Westinghouse never to pay a woman more than its lowest-paid male employee. “You can make arguments till the cows come home about how students have other support systems … but labour is labour. They’re still working for you.”

Advocates say that, if the city became a living-wage employer, that would help students in its employ and encourage other employers to pay more. “I think the moral encouragement of a big public institution valuing their employees sends a strong message to other employers across the community,” Cooper says.

Rybczynski, though, is skeptical. While companies can choose to pay workers more and accept lower profits, many will not, she says, pointing to Loblaw’s decision to end its $2 per hour pandemic pay bump despite a sharp increase in profits. “It’s possible, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

She adds that it’s worth considering the economic impacts created when wages rise. Her own research — and other literature about minimum-wage hikes — shows there can be some negative consequences to wages going up. Employers, for example, may increase the prices of goods and services, and reduce employment levels. Still, Rybczynski says, it’s worth pursuing policies that compress wage gaps while keeping these effects in mind. “Labour should be enough to live off of,” she says. “And, to me, it shouldn’t be qualified based on your demographic group.”

Aya Younis, a McMaster student who worked with Bodo at the HDLC this summer, says a living wage is especially important during the pandemic. If someone’s hours have been cut, or they’re working multiple jobs to make ends meet, she says, an extra $2.20 per hour could really matter: “That’s just going to be so huge.”

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