Saskatoon·Priced Out

Sask. people struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage

Saskatchewan adults are having to make hard choices living on one of the lowest minimum wage rates in the country.

Provincial minimum wage is $11.81/hour

Saskatchewan's government raised minimum wage from $11.45 per hour to $11.81 per hour — a 3.14 per cent increase — in October 2021. (Jordan Gill/CBC)

Everything seems to be getting more expensive. Food, gas and housing prices are on the rise while paycheques are slow to keep pace.

The CBC News series Priced Out explains why you're paying more at the register and how Canadians are coping with the high cost of everything.

Saskatchewan adults are struggling to get by on minimum wage, and the struggle has intensified because of the pandemic and the rising cost of living. 

"It's so hard to live paycheque to paycheque," said Doris Whitedeer, who lives in Saskatoon.  "A lot of people out there are struggling, the cost of living … everything is so sky high."

The 52-year-old is from Fond Du Lac Denesuline First Nation in northern Sask., but moved to the city years ago seeking more opportunities. 

Whitedeer is currently between jobs. She was working as a  cleaner, but lost her job due to COVID-19 layoffs. She said she's been getting by with a little bit of support from others, including her mom, and is living with roommates to cut down on costs. 

She's been applying for jobs in housekeeping and hospitality, and crossing her fingers for a call back. Her biggest worry is that even when she lands a job, her situation won't improve because they all offer minimum wage and she's noticed groceries becoming more expensive.

She said she knows the challenges of trying to buy food or a bus pass, which is critical for her because she doesn't drive. Whitedeer also sees her community members and peers struggling to get by.

"If the minimum wage goes up, that would be awesome. If not, I don't know. Gotta get a second job, I guess."

Saskatchewan's government raised minimum wage from $11.45 per hour to $11.81 per hour  —  a 3.14 per cent increase — in October 2021. 

Saskatchewan's minimum wage for one person working 40 hours per week would be around $24,500 before tax if the person took no holidays through the entire 52-week calendar. If they take a few weeks of holidays through the year and don't receive holiday pay, it is closer to $22,000 before tax.

Doris Whitedeer worries what the future holds as the cost of living continues to rise and Saskatchewan's minimum wage remains low. (Submitted by Doris Whitedeer)

One Canadian making less than $22,518 after-tax is considered below the poverty line, according to data from the Canadian Census Family Low-Income Measure After-Tax that is contained in the Saskatchewan Child and Family Poverty Report 2021. 

The provincial government said it calculates minimum wage based on the Consumer Price Index and average hourly wage for Saskatchewan.

"It's obviously not sufficient. People on minimum wage are living below the poverty line, they're working full time and they're not making enough to me to make ends meet," said  Len Usiskin, who has an MA in economics and is executive director of Quint Saskatoon, a not-for-profit organization focused on helping people with housing, jobs and economic development.

Usiskin said the organization has seen more people struggling to balance the books or afford basic necessities.. He noted the situation worsened because of COVID-19 layoffs.

"The lowest paying jobs were some of the hardest hit through the pandemic, and now people have to not only try and recover from the pandemic, but make a wage that doesn't allow them to break even or even get ahead," Usiskin said.

The misconception is that if you increase the minimum wage by two dollars, for instance, that your jug of milk naturally goes up by two dollars...It's ridiculous.- Andrew Stevens 

Canada's inflation rate hit 5.1 per cent in January, its highest level since 1991, according to Statistics Canada data

Canadian economists say inflation has become generalized. Experts say people at the low end of the wage scale — including women, recent immigrants and those in precarious work — are more affected. 

"People are having to make really tough choices every month: choices about paying the rent or buying adequate food for themselves and their children," Usiskin said, adding some have to settle for poor housing conditions that could be in disarray or overcrowded.

"Maybe they're being forced to look for a second part time second job just to make ends meet at the end of each month, then [there's] the whole issue of childcare."

Regardless of the government's formula, minimum wage increases haven't kept up with inflation, said Andrew Stevens, a professor in the faculty of business at the University of Regina. He released a paper in 2017 that made the case for a literal $15 minimum wage in Saskatchewan and also a movement pushing workers to question business models that rely on low wages. 

"As the cost of living goes up, the purchasing power of someone's wage will go down," he said. "A pretty solid majority of people toiling at minimum wage, and even at under 15 bucks an hour, they're not teenagers. They are adults. There's a pretty sturdy number of people who are actually 35 and older."

He said higher wages would financially empower adults working jobs in hospitality, service, grocery or cleaning —  the people labelled "heroes" during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"For a brief window, their employers were saying we'll give you a premium, low wage workers, because you're so important. That fizzled. And I think that recognition shouldn't have receded."

Saskatchewan has one of the lowest minimum wage rates in Canada. The province is only ahead of New Brunswick, which plans to increase minimum wage to $12.75 in April. Alberta, B.C., and Ontario have all adopted a $15/hour minimum.

 "The misconception is that if you increase the minimum wage by two dollars, for instance, that your jug of milk naturally goes up by two dollars and your burger goes up by two dollars, it's ridiculous," Stevens said. "None of the evidence across North America would suggest that black and white."

He said people also argue higher wages will kill jobs, but when BC's minimum wage rose, the participation rate in the economy and youth employment all remained comparable.

Stevens noted low wage earners tend to spend most, if not all, of their money in the local economy.

He and Usiskin said income and financial distribution policies in Saskatchewan aren't supporting struggling Saskatchewan people in a fair way. They said addressing issues with minimum wage should be one part of a system-overhaul.

"Some people might argue that we can afford that, but poverty is really expensive for taxpayers," Usiskin said. "We need to start talking about alternatives that make our communities stronger and ultimately more affordable for everybody." 

with files from Don Pittis