The National·Special Report

Want to understand the problems with minimum wage? Talk to people who earn it

What it's like to work hard, earn minimum wage and try to makes ends meet, according to three people living it.

Workers talk about hard choices and how they make ends meet on a minimum-wage income

St. Francis Table in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood is a restaurant run by the Capuchin Franciscan Friars of Central Canada, where meals cost $1. Catering to the poor, the restaurant is seeing more and more patrons who work at minimum wage jobs. (Leonardo Palleja/CBC)

There are more than a million Canadians who work minimum wage jobs — they make up 8 per cent of the country's salaried employees.

The hourly rate they earn varies across the country, from a low of $10.85 in Nova Scotia, to Alberta where the minimum wage is set to increase to $15 in October 2018. The rate in Ontario rose to $14 on Jan. 1.

Numbers and statistics aside, one of the best ways to understand the issues around minimum wage is to talk to the people who earn it.

The National's Nick Purdon and Leonardo Palleja went to St. Francis Table in Toronto, a restaurant for the poor where meals cost $1. The restaurant is run by the Capuchin Franciscan Friars of Central Canada and has served more than a million meals since it opened in 1987. The homeless, people on social assistance and seniors have traditionally been the main customers, but the Friars are increasingly seeing people on minimum wage frequenting St. Francis Table. 

Here are three of them, talking about the realities of working hard and trying to live on minimum wage.

Kevin Johnson, 37, temp agency worker

Nick Purdon: You don't live nearby. Tell me why you come to St. Francis Table to eat.

Kevin: I come here just to save a little money, so I can keep a roof over my head first of all and to keep my gym membership. Because without my gym membership I would get very depressed, so I wanna keep that going.

Purdon: What's the temp job you are doing?

Johnson: I work in a plant and it's overnight.

It's like a factory that makes boxes. You put the cardboard in this big machine and it makes boxes and they get shipped to whoever the client is. It's a very boring, very repetitive job.

I am thinking, 'I took a travel and tourism course, why am I having to do this? Is this all that life has in store for me? Am I always gonna be working these crappy jobs?' I want something better.

Purdon:  What do you think people across the country don't understand about people who work a minimum wage job?

Johnson: What they don't understand is how tough it is, and how it is so difficult to budget your money.

And not knowing if you are gonna eat. I have hardly been eating, too. I can't even afford food right now, I am so broke. 

A couple of days last week I didn't eat at all. I just went to work, drank lots of water and didn't eat, because I am waiting for my next paycheque to come in.

Purdon: What are some of the choices you have to make?

Johnson: I need a warmer jacket. This jacket is OK for milder winter days. But when it gets really cold — like when we had that cold snap, I was freezing in this thing and I was thinking, well, I can't afford to buy another jacket.

And the problem is that with this job that I have, I'm taking the night bus as far west as I can and then I'm having to walk for an hour in the freezing cold, because I cannot afford to take a cab to come home.

Purdon: What's it like to say that? You have a full time job, you work hard ...

Johnson: And I have nothing to show for it. I feel terrible. It makes me feel awful, like I have no purpose in life.

I hate that, because I see other people and I get jealous.

Sometimes I go for little walks on Friday or Saturday nights downtown and I see other people, and they are going out to restaurants or bars, having a nice dinner. I'm looking at that — why can't I have that? What am I doing wrong?

There's got to be something I am doing wrong that these people are doing right.

Watch excerpts from the interview:

Kevin Johnson

4 years ago
Kevin Johnson 1:18

Yusdel Amaro, 35, cook and part-time City of Toronto worker

Nick Purdon: How do you get by?

Yusdel Amaro: Well, for years and years and years I worked seven days a week. It was like that up until recently, then I just decided that for [the sake of] $100 or $200 on a paycheque I needed a day off.

So I decided to take Sundays off. And I just can't wait for Sundays, after working almost 15 years in a row seven days a week.

It's tough. It's tough ... just paying bills. 

Purdon: What are the hard choices you make based on how much money you make?  

Amaro: Hard choices? There are plenty.

But the tough one for me would be not being able to just support my family in Cuba.

Purdon: What do you think about Ontario raising the minimum wage to $14 an hour? 

Amaro: I just wish I was getting paid more. Now that they are going to make it $14, I think that is an improvement, but I don't think it's going to solve any major problems in anybody's life, especially with prices going up.

Purdon: It's been very hard to get people to talk to us about living on minimum wage. Why do you think that is? 

Amaro: Society thinks if you make minimum wage, you are less. So people might have that sentiment of guarding their pride.  

Purdon: How about you?  

Amaro: Me, it's just reality. It is what it is. Nobody else is paying my bills.

Watch excerpts from the interview:

Yusdel Amaro

4 years ago
Yusdel Amaro 1:01

Peter Jecchinis, 51, temp agency worker

Nick Purdon: What can you tell me about making minimum wage?  

Peter Jecchinis: Well, you can exist, but you can't necessarily "live," I would say. That's the best way to describe it. You need a little more to get by.

It's tough. You have to really skimp on everything. Clothes. Food.

Purdon: You said you "exist" but you don't "live." What do you mean?   

Jecchinis: You can exist. You can get by. You can find ways to get by. But you don't have extra things, and a man does not live by bread alone.

You need recreation. You need entertainment. You need a little extra, other than just paying your bills. Why not go to a movie once in a while, why not go to a ballgame once in a while? Is that too much to ask for someone who is putting in [full time] hours, no matter what they are doing for a living?

Purdon: What's something you'd love to buy that you can't afford?   

Jecchinis: I'm more a kind of guy who would get some nice clothes. I'm not that materialistic.

Maybe a better phone. Yeah, maybe a better phone.

Simple things like that. I'd maybe go see a ball game once in a while. Once a year — something like that.

Watch excerpts from the interview:

Peter Jecchinis

4 years ago
Peter Jecchinis 0:49


Nick Purdon

Current Affairs Correspondent

Nick Purdon is a Current Affairs Correspondent with CBC News' The National. You can follow him on Twitter at @nickpurdoncbc