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Halifax Regional Municipality needs to fully implement a living wage policy

Time for a Giant Leap Forward for Workers’ Wages in Nova Scotia

November 21, 2023

3-minute read

The Halifax Regional Council must continue to include paying a living wage as part of its procurement policy, address the gaps created by exemptions to this policy, and pay all its employees a living wage. Halifax Regional Council should lead the way, with other municipalities and public and private employers following suit.

It has been four years since the Halifax Regional Council passed a social procurement policy that included paying a living wage as part of the evaluation criteria for bids. This was a crucial step forward for low-wage workers in the municipality. Staff reported that wages paid to contractors in 2019 were as low as $12.69 per hour for custodians, $17.44 for snow clearing, and $14.37 for waste removal. Councillor Lindell Smith shared at that Council meeting that he has personally encountered custodial staff working a second job.

We know this about low-wage workers—they work multiple jobs, often sacrificing family time to make ends meet. Working a full-time job no longer means you will have enough to cover even your basic needs, especially if your wage is at or near the minimum wage of $15 or significantly less than the living wage ($26.50 for Halifax). At the time, the HRM staff estimated that making this change would cost the municipality roughly $8 million, equivalent to less than $20 per year per resident. The living wage has increased by 21.5 per cent since this policy was passed, mainly due to inflationary pressures on the budget, particularly for food and rent, which are used to calculate the wage. All workers not paid a living wage that has kept up with inflation are struggling.

The social procurement policy adopted in 2020 required some private contractors to pay a living wage. However, there were many gaps because of exemptions around student-workers, low-hour contracts, construction work, and a few others. The municipality should remove these exemptions to ensure all contractors pay a living wage.

The municipality itself should pay a living wage for all workers directly employed by the municipality, including part-time, casual, seasonal, students and those employed at multi-district facilities. The Nova Scotia Construction Labour Relations Association (NSCLRA) spoke to Council and urged it not to exempt construction from the living wage requirements in order to level the playing field and ensure that companies are not just bidding based on who can pay the lowest.

“Now, contractors must compete on safety, quality and the ability to deliver the project on time and on budget,” an NSCLRA spokesperson told Council. This is what the evidence on paying a living wage has shown.

The municipality must acknowledge its responsibility for employing Haligonians at wages that do not allow them to make ends meet, including some of its employees and contractors. Ensuring public dollars are used to provide stable jobs at a living wage should be part of the anti-poverty strategy that the Council committed to in 2017—and part of ensuring that its own employees can afford stable housing. While paying a living wage is not the only tool to end poverty and homelessness, it is an essential contributing factor. It is recognized as part of the social value framework adopted by the municipality.

At the end of November, there will be an update on a staff report to be tabled at Halifax Regional Council that will outline the financial impact of addressing these exemptions—“Ensuring a living wage for all employees of Halifax Regional Municipality, Halifax Public Libraries, as well as employees of the Multi-District Facilities, regardless of employment status (i.e., covering part-time, casual, seasonal, etc.) to be implemented no later than April 1, 2024. This report should be completed in time to inform the 2024-25 budget process.”

The direct financial implications are important, but a cost analysis that only considers the direct impact on the municipal budget only captures part of the financial implications—when it must also weigh the indirect costs of low-waged work and the social implications. It takes a tremendous toll on workers' health when they cannot afford nutritious food and quality housing and are constantly stressed about bills, which in turn can impact their productivity.

The additional health expenditures, income supports, and other social programs to bridge the gaps for low-wage workers also have a societal cost. There is mounting international evidence of the benefits to employers, e.g., higher retention rates, fewer sick days, better work quality, and increased productivity.

Working people deserve to work for a fair wage that allows them to have some work-life balance, not spend all their waking hours working and struggling to make ends meet. The living wage is calculated to ensure that workers share in the prosperity of our province and are supported to live a quality of life. Paying a living wage is the right thing to do and would show tremendous leadership.

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