Minimum wage hike threatens camp for kids with autism, charity warns

A local charity is worried that a proposed increase to Ontario’s minimum wage could spell the end of its summer camp for children with autism.

'We need more time to adapt to changes like this,' says charity's executive director

Brenda Reisch, executive director of Children at Risk, stands next to supplies for her organization's annual summer camp, Camp Kaleidoscope. She said camp fees will have to 'increase astronomically' as a result of the proposed minimum wage hike in Ontario. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

An Ottawa charity is worried a proposed increase to Ontario's minimum wage could spell the end of its summer camp for children with autism.

"It's going to have a critical impact on our ability to deliver the service and to deliver it affordably," said Brenda Reisch, executive director of Children at Risk.

For seven years, Children at Risk has offered an all-day summer camp to high-needs children with autism in Ottawa. Close to 170 children attended camp last summer and Reisch said there is huge demand from parents who — like her — have a child with autism.

But with a proposed increase to Ontario's minimum wage looming, Reisch said the resulting $60,000 increase in her organization's staffing costs could jeopardize the camp's future.

"That could mean the end of the camp," Reisch said.

Ontario Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne proposed the minimum wage hike last May as part of Bill 148 — a package of changes to Ontario's labour laws.

The province's minimum wage currently stands at $11.60 an hour. If the hike is approved, the minimum wage will rise to $14 an hour on Jan. 1, 2018, before rising further to $15 an hour the following January.

Calls for slower increase

Children at Risk is not the only nonprofit worried about the increase. Cathy Taylor, the executive director of the Ontario Nonprofit Network, an independent advocacy network for the province's 55,000 non-profits and charities, said many groups are scrambling to come up with a plan.

"The short notice is problematic," Taylor said, as the first wage hike will occur in this fiscal year, even though organizations have already passed their budgets.

"There will be implications," Taylor said, "and many organizations aren't sure where those dollars will come from."

[Workers] need to start living out of poverty now, rather than in four or five years.- Silviu Riley, organizer with Fight for $15 & Fairness Ottawa

Reisch said more time is needed for charities and businesses to adapt to the changes.

She is backing a proposal made by the Keep Ontario Working coalition on behalf of the province's employers, recommending the timeline for the increase be extended as long as five years.

"That's what might actually save a lot of jobs, and it's going to save possibly our camp," Reisch said.

'They need to start living outside of poverty now'

Silviu Riley, an organizer with Fight for $15 & Fairness Ottawa, a grassroots campaign pushing for better working conditions and an increase to the minimum wage, rejected the call for a delay.

"They need to start living outside of poverty now, rather than in four or five years," Riley said.

Reisch agrees that workers deserve better compensation, but said doesn't know how her charity will deal with the shortfall. She also expects to have to pay more for outings and services at other venues. 

Children play at Children at Risk's Camp Kaleidoscope in summer 2017. The organization's executive director, Brenda Reisch, worries the camp might not be able to afford the Ontario's government's proposed minimum wage hike. (Children at Risk)

"It's all going to be more expensive, because all those places have to pay their people more money as well," Reisch said.

The charity has raised their weekly fee from $425 to $500, and she worries the increase might prevent some children from attending camp next year.

"Those children are going to lose out," said Reisch.