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Jim Stanford's full interview 13:33

Ask Marissa Deacon how she feels about the concept of a living wage, and her reaction is sudden and effusive.

The notion of a living wage is that every adult Hamiltonian would make exactly enough to have a modest but comfortable life: $14.95 per hour.

That's $4 an hour more than Deacon has made in months.

"Right now, for me, it's either pay rent or have groceries. And if you don't pay rent, you don't have a place to live," said the 22-year-old, who recently earned Ontario's minimum wage of $10.25 at a local call centre.

"If you add that extra money to make it $14, I'd be able to have groceries. I'd have a phone. I could pay my hydro. I'd have everything I need."

It's Hamiltonians such as Deacon who have inspired a local coalition of agencies to coax government and businesses to voluntarily implement a living wage.

The $14.95 living wage includes:

  • food, shelter and utilities
  • transportation (car for families, bus pass for individuals)
  • extended healthcare and dental insurance
  • continuing education to upgrade skills
  • childcare

Currently, 30,000 working Hamiltonians live below the poverty line. Ten thousand of them have full-time jobs.

The Living Wage Hamilton coalition is comprised of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, the Social Planning and Research Council, the Hamilton Training Advisory Board, the McMaster Community Poverty Initiative.

The group used local estimates to arrive at $14.95, said Sara Mayo, a social planner with the Social Planning and Research Council.

That number would allow someone to live modestly and be part of the community, she said.

The living wage does not include:

  • household debt
  • home ownership
  • saving for children's education or retirement

In addition to a healthy diet, an apartment and utilities, that figure takes into account:

  • children's school fees, field trips and fundraisers
  • basic phone (land line), cable and internet
  • in families with two children, allowance for the older child
  • a monthly family outing
  • a family vacation within Ontario
  • four per cent contingency for emergencies

The coalition launched its living wage campaign in December. It held a round table on May 26 with economist Jim Stanford, a living wage supporter.

Getting businesses on board

Later this year, it will focus on persuading businesses to get on board, said Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction.

Businesses voluntarily implement a living wage. The coalition hasn't finalized how it will get businesses on board, Cooper said.

30,000 Hamiltonians have jobs but live below the poverty line.

  • 10,000 of those work full time
  • 7 per cent of all female workers live below the poverty line
  • 5 per cent of all male workers live below the poverty line
  • 12 per cent of all workers below the poverty line are aboriginal
  • 13 per cent of workers below the poverty line are visible monitories

But it will tout the benefits and develop some sort of recognition system.

"From the research we've looked at, when employees earn a living wage, it's a happier workforce and there's far less turnover, which saves the employer money," he said.

The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce isn't as sure.

The chamber wants to be included in any living wage conversations, president David Adames said. A living wage is "a complex issue."

For example, if the minimum wage workers are bumped up to $14.95, what do the workers already making $14.95 earn? It could involve bumping up the pay scale of a whole body of employees, he said.

"You could be talking about a 50 per cent increase in payroll costs. Most small businesses can't absorb that in one fell swoop."

'Extra motivation'

Deacon said if top-level managers can make a decent wage, lower-level employees should too.

In her situation, she has little morale and no money to do much.

"I don't go anywhere," she said. "I sit at home and do crossword puzzles."

Her friend Mick Evans, 25, has had minimum wage jobs. He's also made $14 an hour in construction, and "that was plenty."

"You can afford to live and bank a little bit of savings, so if something does come up, you're OK," he said. "Or if you want to go on vacation to get away from the stress of your minimum wage job, you can afford it."

The extra $4 would "give me motivation," he said.

Living wage policies have already been implemented in British Columbia and across the U.S. If Hamilton adopted it, it would be the largest Canadian city to do so, Stanford said.