'I'm not downplaying their contribution': Calgary businesses support universal $15 minimum wage

Calgarians can browse a growing directory of local companies committed to paying workers $15 an hour — no matter their age — when the province rolls back the minimum wage for youth under 18 on Wednesday.

Local businesses join Alberta15 to pledge they won't slash youth wages on June 26

About 150 businesses across Alberta have joined the Alberta15 coalition to pledge to keep paying their young staff $15-an-hour after the lower wage comes into effect Wednesday. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Calgarians can browse a growing directory of local companies committed to paying their employees at least $15 an hour — no matter their age — when the province rolls back the minimum wage for youth under 18 this week. 

Students under the age of 18 could take a pay cut starting Wednesday, when the United Conservative Party government's $13-an-hour minimum wage for youth goes into effect. 

The lower wage applies to students who work 28 hours or less a week, and those who work during the summer break, holidays and other school breaks. 

That is, if their employer hasn't joined the Alberta15 movement. 

About 150 businesses across the province have joined the coalition to show their support for their young staff. The list of companies includes everything from a fast food chain to local coffee shops, plumbing services to independent art studios.

Cornerstone Music Cafe owner Sylvia Johnston's business is on the Alberta15 list. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Sylvia Johnston, owner of Cornerstone Music Cafe, added her business' name to the list because she doesn't believe it's fair to pay her employees differently based on their age. 

"I've always paid my staff more than regular wage because I think they need it and deserve it," said Johnston, who consistently hires youth to work in her coffee shop in southeast Calgary. 

"We're in this five-year recession, times are tough for us as a business, we're barely scraping by — but I wouldn't be scraping by if I didn't have my staff."

Johnston added as many as 25 of her former staff members have paid for post-secondary school using their paychecks from the café. 

A 13% pay cut 

The NDP raised the minimum wage from $10 an hour in 2015 to $15 an hour in fall 2018 for all workers, regardless of age or industry. 

Premier Jason Kenney has championed the cut, arguing that it will allow employers to hire more young people while helping youth gain job skills and experience that will lead to higher-paying opportunities. 

I don't think giving any [other] Albertan a 13 per cent pay cut would fly very well.- Brian MacKay, Alberta15 founder

"The argument seems to be that these young kids don't need the money, they don't need the extra two dollars an hour," said Alberta15 founder Brian MacKay. "I don't think giving any [other] Albertan a 13 per cent pay cut would fly very well." 

MacKay said his hope for the directory is that it provides both workers and consumers with a list of businesses who treat their workers fairly, regardless of age, so they can make informed decisions when it comes to spending their money. 

But he acknowledges that while $15 is better than $13, it's still not necessarily enough to live in certain parts of the province.

A living wage in Calgary is the equivalent of $18.15-an-hour without benefits or $17-an-hour with benefits, according to a 2017 report from Vibrant Communities Calgary

Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party also introduced changes to banked overtime, holiday pay and union certification votes last month. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

"Employers that hire people should hire based on the job being viable, period," the Alberta15 website states. 

Sean Lynch, co-owner at Amaze Escape Room in Calgary, said he knows it's up to him as an employer to hire people who are capable and to pay them fairly. That's why he joined Alberta15.

"I would feel it would cause tension among employees if they knew that they were being paid less for the same amount of work and weren't being judged on their own abilities to do it," Lynch said. 

"The hope would be they feel respected as employees, that I'm not downplaying their contribution." 

Change brings certainty: Chamber of Commerce 

Sandip Lalli, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, said the lower wage will provide "greater certainty" to businesses.

"We're encouraged by the fact that it enables business owners to look at the full spectrum from students to mature workers," Lalli said.   

Businesses, however, will ultimately make the change on Wednesday depending on their employees' skills, workloads and hours, among other things, she said. 

And if what she said she's hearing from local businesses is any sign, many will opt to continue to pay their young staff a $15-an-hour wage since they've already built those wages into their cost structures. 


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