SFU-based report calls for university wage policy that reflects cost of living

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A report encouraging Simon Fraser University (SFU) to become the first campus in Canada to pay all its employees a living wage rather than minimum wage is currently under review by that university. The Living Wage for Families Campaign by First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition and its faction at SFU put forward the research report on Feb. 20, calling for SFU to give all employees the living wage for Metro Vancouver: $19.14 per hour.

A living wage is the hourly rate at which a family can afford basic needs according to the region’s cost of living. Victoria’s Community Social Planning Council used the same methods as the SFU study and found that the 2012 living wage in Victoria was $18.07 per hour; it has steadily increased since 2006, while the province’s minimum wage reached $10.25 per hour in May 2012 after a series of increases.

Living wages are meant to address child and family poverty that results from low-wage work. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), which published a 2012 update to its “Working for a Living Wage” report, B.C. has had the highest rates of child poverty in Canada for the last eight years, and, in 2009, 43 per cent of poor children lived in families with at least one adult working full time.

Michael McCarthy Flynn, who helped start the SFU Living Wage Campaign a little over a year ago and was the primary author of the campaign’s report, says educational institutions can play a positive role in the community and can use social policies to combat poverty.

“We’re hoping that this will be an inspiration for other universities and other [educational] institutions to develop similar campaigns,” says McCarthy Flynn. “It isn’t just SFU. All institutions would employ some low-wage workers, and we feel that it’s perfectly manageable to address this through a living wage policy.”

For Victoria, the calculation of living wage is based on a typical family in the Capital region consisting of two adults working full time and two children under the age of 10, one of whom requires child-care, according to Statistics Canada demographics.

Living wages are re-calculated each year to suit updated costs of living. Only the necessities are accounted for, such as housing, child-care, food, clothing, transportation and health care. Long-term and extra expenses like children’s education, mortgages, retirement savings, credit card bills and debt are not included in the living wage.

The SFU report looks at other institutions that have implemented a living wage policy. These include all eight U.S. Ivy League schools and 14 other top universities in the U.S., 13 institutions in the U.K. and 28 corporate and non-profit organizations in Vancouver.

The SFU study found that jobs in food, janitorial and security services, as well as research assistant positions at SFU, often do not pay living wage rates. Of the low-wage workers included in the SFU study, 73 per cent earned less than the living wage, and both maintenance workers and janitorial staff earned less than the industry average in B.C.

The majority of CUPE Local 917 positions, which comprise approximately 500 maintenance, security, janitorial and food service positions at UVic, pay more than Victoria’s $18.07 per hour living wage, with the exception of house worker and lifeguard positions and a few others.

Junior academic and science research assistants, however, make $14.25 per hour after a lower-paid probationary period. Some research assistant positions, often filled by graduate students or recent alumni, are paid by third-party organizations, such as government internship programs.

“One of the areas that we looked at was research assistant,” says McCarthy Flynn. “They gave us very similar stories to the other workers — that they had struggles making ends meet, that they were often in poverty, that they often had to decide whether they paid for food for their family or paid for rent. Some of them indicated that they had to survive by going to food banks.”

Student work study positions at UVic are paid at least $11 per hour to a maximum of 340 hours between September and April, or roughly $110 per week over the academic year. However, some positions offer department top-ups to that wage, and positions designated by CUPE pay $11.58 per hour.

“One way to help people on low wages is to increase wages, but another way is to reduce their expenses,” says McCarthy Flynn. “The two biggest items on the living wage calculation are child-care and housing. So, if we had more social housing and more affordable child-care, their expenses would be reduced, and in turn the living wage would be reduced.”

According to a living wage study by Victoria’s Community Social Planning Council, a three-bedroom rental with utilities and insurance plus child-care accounts for over 40 per cent of a basic monthly budget based on a living wage income.

As a poverty reduction strategy, living wage policies have drawbacks in that they do not help people who are unemployed or unable to work.

“Poverty is a complex issue that affects numerous types of people, and there are different types of solutions,” says McCarthy Flynn. “A living wage . . . is probably the most important one for those who suffer from low-wage poverty, but obviously it’s not going to affect seniors or people on welfare, so they would have to have other solutions.”

Other poverty reduction strategies include raised minimum wages, guaranteed annual income, the universal child-care benefit and a negative income tax.

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