Wage top-up — a boon for 242 N.W.T. workers — won't outlive COVID-19 crisis

Despite indications to the contrary from the premier, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said Wednesday that a wage top-up for those making less than $18 per hour won’t outlast the global pandemic. 

'We certainly can't have every single program ... move forward forever'

On Wednesday, Minister Caroline Wawzonek said the N.W.T. wage top-up program 'is not going to be some sort of pilot that the Department of Finance is using in terms of modelling for future minimum wage changes. It really is quite specific to COVID-19.'  (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

A wage top-up for people earning less than $18 per hour will expire as planned after four months. 

Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek made the announcement in the legislature Wednesday. 

"We certainly can't have every single program that moves forward under COVID[-19] move forward forever," Wawzonek said. "There will not be sufficient money to do that."

The wage top-up program was announced May 12 as part of the territory's emergency COVID-19 relief efforts. So far, 242 people working for 31 different businesses have received the top-up, Wawzonek said, representing about $65,000 in retroactive pay for the month of April. 

When it was announced, Wawzonek described the program as "a thank you in the form of a financial boost to our lower-paid workers who are continuing to help sustain the N.W.T. economy while the disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic continues." 

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly argued Wednesday that the wage top-up is also "the clearest sign" the territory's minimum wage of $13.46 is too low. 

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly says the wage top-of program for people who make less than $18 per hour needs to be reflected in the territory's minimum wage once the pandemic is over. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

Wawzonek explained that the wage top-up came about shortly after the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) of $2,000 for Canadians who lost their jobs due to the pandemic. It was quickly recognized in the South, Wawzonek said, that CERB payments could be an incentive for people to leave what could now be considered high-risk professions, such as working in grocery stores or gas stations. 

"That wasn't quite the case in the N.W.T.," Wawzonek said. "The motivation here became one really of putting money into the hands of residents for whatever their needs might be." 

But, she said, the money was not, "at least in terms of our modelling, tied into minimum wage." 

"And so at this point, this program is not going to be some sort of pilot that the Department of Finance is using in terms of modelling for future minimum wage changes. It really is quite specific to COVID-19." 

Wawzonek also pointed out that the two-year review of minimum wage in the territory is underway, with a report expected soon. 

That didn't sit well with O'Reilly, who said the territory's minimum wage is "not enough for a decent standard of living in any of our communities." 

"We heard the premier yesterday say that it would be a sin to roll back the progress on one of these programs," he said. "And this is one of the programs that it would be a sin to roll back."

Pandemic costs rising

In a separate minister's statement, Wawzonek noted that the territorial government has spent almost $7.9 million on COVID-19 related costs, and is projecting to spend another $31.1 million, $11.3 million of which will go toward the health response.

While she said the pandemic has not changed the government's overall commitments, she called the pandemic the "economic equivalent of a 100-year storm." 

"Things will not be the same when the COVID-19 pandemic health measures have lifted," she said."The government of the Northwest Territories has a responsibility to support the recovery as quickly as possible or much of the private sector may not have the ability to recover."


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