Hamilton's unemployment rate hides struggles of working poor

Hamilton's unemployment rate may be down, but many employed Hamiltonians still struggle with poverty including David Galvin, a man with two degrees and a lost career in computer programming.

30,000 working Hamiltonians are still living in poverty, report says

David Galvin is one of Hamilton's precarious workers: those who work when they can but struggle to get a stable income. (Supplied)

David Galvin was born and raised in Hamilton. With two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Guelph, he spent most of his career working in computer programming and systems analysis. He even taught part time as an instructor at Conestoga College.

But now, the 60-year-old struggles to make end’s meet, bouncing between short-term contract work as a security guard and Employment Insurance.

"There is a tremendous amount of stress, no question," Galvin said.

"It does impose quite a cognitive burden when you could be using that thought power on more important things like changing your life situation."

When Galvin’s wife Norma died in 2002, he found himself overcome by grief and fell into gambling, an addiction he had struggled with for years. He says he lost $750,000 over a decade.

He picked himself up and tried to get his life back together but trying to find a job wasn't easy. After numerous rejections he decided to pursue security — he had some experience from when he was a student.

'Precarious' job situations

Now, his employment is anything but secure. Contracts can end with no assurance of another job, hours can be cut drastically at the whim of employers and there are no benefits. When he’s not working his minimum wage job, Galvin lives off of Employment Insurance. That's just 55 per cent of his former income and well below the cost of living in Hamilton.

"I’m a little better off than a lot of people because I’m over 60 and I have a deceased spouse, so I benefit from the Canadian Pension Plan," he said, adding he also splits the rent on his small, two-bedroom apartment with a roommate.

His job situation is 'precarious' — a word that is being used to describe more and more workers in Canada  — and that means Galvin struggles to get the basic necessities.

"Food prices are very high. Relative to a poorly-paid person like myself, there are a lot of things that are out of reach," he said. "It’s very difficult to have an adequate diet on this level of income."

Minimum wage in Ontario: $10.25. Cost of living in Hamilton $14.95, SPRC says

That's a  problem many in Hamilton face. According to 2011 report by the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, 30,000 working Hamiltonians are still living in poverty.

"There’s actually an increasing amount of precarious workers in Hamilton," Don Jaffray, executive director for the SPRC, said.

"It can be isolating. You always have to be on standby."

While the current minimum wage in Ontario is $10.25 per hour, the living wage in Hamilton — the actual cost of living — is $14.95 per hour, according to the SPRC. It’s no wonder then that so many working Hamiltonians still struggle to get by.

"We have a population of workers in Hamilton, a labour force ready and willing to work," explained Jaffray.

"When work becomes available, they will go to work but the struggle comes when that work does not pay enough to meet your basic needs."

A solution

Galvin thinks the solution could be simple: changes to the way Employment Insurance is calculated. He suggested a sliding scale where those who earn a higher income receive the current 55 per cent, while those on very low incomes receive a higher amount, maybe 75 or 80 per cent.

"When what you’re making is barely enough to sustain you in the first place, 55 per cent is highly inadequate," he said.

For now, he takes it month to month, hoping that his story might help change people’s perspectives.

"When people look at poor people, it makes them a little scared. It reminds them of the vagaries of life," he said.

"It’s much easier to blame them than to think it could ever happen to you."