Anxiety abounds in Southwestern Ontario as province forges ahead with minimum wage hike

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It hangs like a late-summer mist, an air of uncertainty in a region that’s fought back from the brutal recession of barely a decade ago.

Apprehension, even fear — it’s there in Southwestern Ontario’s farm belt, its cities and towns.

As Labour Day dawns, what should be a victory for many — proposals for the most sweeping Ontario labour reforms in a generation, packing a big increase in the minimum wage and other benefits for millions of workers — has instead become a source of worry and division for many Ontarians.

Even, ironically, for some of the low-wage workers the overhaul is meant to shield from precarious work.

“I would rather make minimum wage than not work at all,” says Amanda Blenderman, a part-time clerk at a Salvation Army thrift store in Tillsonburg, a town recently rocked by the closing of a wind-turbine blade factory that will cost 340 jobs.

Blenderman, 25, works two jobs but fears higher labour costs would punish workers like herself as employers cut back.

“I’d rather make what I make and keep my job,” she says.

Ontario’s ruling Liberals, with the next election less than a year away, want to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2019, a 32-per-cent increase over 16 months. But there’s more than that to Bill 148.

There’s mandatory vacation time after five years, personal emergency leave and new rules to protect workers, especially temporary ones, from being yo-yoed around by employers who cut or cancel their hours.

The reforms sprung from a groundbreaking report that found one-third of Ontario’s 6.6 million workers are vulnerable to job losses from technology, a shrinking manufacturing sector and less unionized positions.

For those left behind by Ontario’s economic recovery, it’s touted as a high tide that lifts all ships.

But travel our region, as The Free Press did, talking to dozens of workers and employers, and many fret the Fair Jobs and Better Workplaces Act is neither.

On one side, big business has warned the law could jeopardize tens of thousands of jobs.

On the other, including in Southwestern Ontario, organized labour and other groups say the changes are long overdue and a province leading Canada’s economy can easily afford it.

A $15 minimum would be nearly 28 per cent less than the average wage, $20.70, for the job vacancies posted in Ontario in first-quarter 2017.

In Southwestern Ontario, where those averages pay less, the difference is tighter: The jobs employers were trying to fill early this year, Statistics Canada reports, ranged from an average $17.80 in London, where the unemployment rate is about as good as it gets, to a low of $16.10 in Windsor-Sarnia.

Given those figures, you might think Bill 148 would be no big deal in a region whose all-important auto industry and other sectors have fired back up. But get off the region’s highways, away from its booming factories and red-hot housing markets, and you find people like Breen Bentley, a Stratford bar-restaurant owner blunt about what he thinks might be coming.

“Minimum wage starts the initiation of everyone making more money, which, in turn, initiates everything going up in price,” he says.

“It’s a huge domino effect. Our prices will go up.”

With more than 30 years under its belt, Bentley’s Bar, Inn and Restaurant “will find room for it,” Bentley says. But he worries others won’t.

“The challenging thing is for new businesses starting out,” he says. “It’s a bit of a shock.”

The Ontario Federation of Labour notes the minimum wage, now $11.40 an hour, is barely a dollar more than its value in 1977 when adjusted for inflation.

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce predicts Bill 148 will risk 185,000 jobs.

But it’s not just the 10 per cent of Ontarians making the minimum wage with an oar in the water. Many expect wage demands by higher-paid workers to also go up, to keep pace, while others — like Woodstock personal support worker Dawn Brembridge — go even further, wondering why they pulled themselves up to escape low wages only to see a rapidly-rising minimum eating into their gains.

“You’re overworked and underpaid, and yet I can go work behind a till and push buttons and make $15 and save my back,” says Brembridge, arguing she spent good money and time to get certified for a job whose base pay is about $18 an hour.

“It doesn’t sit right. It’s absolutely insulting.”

Behind the counter: Sympathetic small-town grocer sees red

DUTTON — “She’s killing us.”

Grocery store owner Luis Leonardes couldn’t be clearer about the fallout he fears from Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Bill 148.

“This is not well thought out. There’s something wrong with her head if she even thinks that this is possible,” he says.

Leonardes calls the proposed minimum wage hike a serious threat to his business — a plan he says was hashed out by Toronto for Toronto, with little regard for rural Ontario and small stores like his.

Facing tough competition and razor-thin margins, he says the Liberals want to raise the minimum wage by too much, too fast.

Retail workers deserve higher wages, he believes, especially with fewer well-paid manufacturing jobs around, but they should come more gradually.

“If she would have gone 50 cents a year, everybody would adjust. But to jump $2.60 an hour (by Jan. 1, 2018 and $1 on Jan. 1, 2019). How do you adjust?”

Some won’t, a survey of more than 3,500 small- and medium-sized Ontario companies for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business suggests. A third of member businesses said they’d consider selling, moving or closing if the wage plan becomes reality.

Leonardes doesn’t want to go anywhere. He calls his 37 employees family, his customers the reason he’s still in business.

“We try and survive. We’ve been here for 31 years, 32 in December. We hope to be here a lot longer,” says Leonardes, whose 30-year-old daughter, Amanda, is taking over the store when he retires.

“I’m hoping that there’s still a business here for her.”

At the jobs centre: Snuffed-out dreams, skepticism of better

SARNIA — Journeyman welder Jesse Moore hasn’t found the spark he hoped for in the job market.

The 32-year-old finished his training years ago, but his career choice hasn’t paid off.

With the erosion of Sarnia’s Chemical Valley hub of petro-chemical industries, Moore struggled to find welding work. He ended up cooking for minimum wage at a downtown restaurant.

“It was a stressful job, it was hard work. It wasn’t like we stood around and did nothing,” he says.

Moore says he deserved better pay and knows others in the same boat. “They raise the price of everything else before they raise the minimum wage.”

Out of work again, Moore is looking for whatever he can find.

“Even part-time would be something,” he says, sitting on a bench and smoking outside an employment centre that gets 600 to 700 visitors weekly.

“They’re just desperate for work,” says Alisa Boak, an advisor at the centre.

“There’s a lot of underemployed people, too.”

Boak says people left for Alberta jobs, but have come back as that work began drying up in 2014.

She doesn’t believe Bill 148 will do anything to help the people coming through the centre’s doors.

“I think there will be less work. Any business that’s open will do more with less.”



College graduate Sydney Beason, working in retail, is all for Bill 148. “It’s going to help out with everything, because then I can get groceries and pay my rent,” says the 20-year-old at Urban Outfitters. She hasn’t been able to find a job in her theatre arts field in London, whose jobless rate fell to a 10-year low in July. She toyed with trying to get a second job, ”but I couldn’t balance that.”

St. Marys

In a town of 7,000 that last year lost its Heinz plant, the head of a family-run golf operation says it might not have done a major renovation had it known labour costs would rise so fast. “The one thing we can control is wages, and we’ve just lost control of that,” said Matt Staffen of St. Marys Golf and Country Club. “We take all this risk and invest in our business . . . It is just a bad decision all around.”

St. Thomas

The area’s Ground Zero for industrial job losses, hard hit by auto and truck plant closings of auto, the city is struggling regain ground. Working at his family’s cafe, Steve Burge, 26, says prices would go up under Bill 148 and the eatery might not hire a summer student next year. “I don’t know who’s up there saying this is a good idea, because everything else goes up with it and it is all just a wash.”


At big-box home improvement store Rona, in a city that never fully recovered from the 1990s recession, general manager Bill Riddell says the minimum wage increase would drive up prices — but he also worries about the strain of paying full- and part-timers the same. “You have to be more diligent on the amount of hours you’re spending because it costs you more to have people here.”


At Slegers Living Organic Greens, a produce farm with 18 employees, owner Pauline Slegers is waiting to see what breaks small businesses will get to help cope with Bill 148. Labour is her biggest cost. “I’m all for people making more money, but then the government should be supporting small businesses too.”


Minimum wage:

  • $11.40 an hour now, going to $11.60 Oct 1., would rise in stages to $15 Jan. 1, 2019.
  • Annual increases indexed to inflation.
  • Lower minimums for liquor servers and students would rise by same percentages.


  • Minimum three weeks after five years on the job.


  • 10 days for personal emergency, including two paid days

Wage parity:

  • Equal pay for full- and part-timers, including temporary workers.


  • Must be paid for three hours if shift cancelled with less than 48 hours notice.

Doctors notes:

  • Employers can’t require for personal emergency days.


  • Province-wide hearings held this summer; goes back to legislature this fall 

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