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Raise minimum wage to $18, says MLA Johnson; 'I don't have a path to a living wage,' minister replies

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson said on Thursday he thinks the minimum wage can raised to $18 an hour during the life of the current Legislative Assembly. GNWT image

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson wants the GNWT to raise the minimum wage and a good starting point is $18 an hour, as that's the wage the government has already been subsidizing for the past six months.

"Time to seize the opportunity of us giving those businesses millions of dollars to pay their employees more and get their support for a minimum wage increase," says Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North.
GNWT image

In an exchange with Education, Culture and Employment (ECE) Minister R.J. Simpson on Thursday, Johnson said that working full-time at the current minimum wage of $13.46 an hour amounts to earning less than $30,000 a year, which equates to poverty.

The minimum wage was raised to its present level on April 1, 2018, up from the $12.50 per hour, which was set in 2015.

"Presently, our minimum wage is $13.46. Presently, we are subsidizing everyone in the territory such that no one should be making less than $18 an hour," he told MLAs, referring to two extensions of wage top-up programs since the spring.

In May, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek announced that the government would allocate up to $6.2 million to temporarily top up wages for workers earning less than $18 per hour. The federal government contributed $4.7 million towards the program.

That program was extended in July for eight weeks.

It was extended again last week, until Feb. 28, 2021.

"Will the Minister raise the minimum wage?" Johnson asked Simpson.

"Depending on how long I'm here, I'm sure at some point I might," Simpson responded, as other MLAs laughed and commented.

He went to explain that he is awaiting a report from a minimum wage committee made up of non-governmental organizations, industries and GNWT representatives who examine the economic climate of the NWT.

Simpson said he expects that report and its recommendations to be ready next week, and would speak about it with the Standing Committee on Social Development before making a decision.

"I don't have a path to a living wage. Frankly, I don't have a path to ensuring everyone makes $25-plus (an hour) in the territory. I'm not sure how we would get to that at this point. It would take a rethinking of a lot of small businesses. I know of businesses in Hay River that would go under if they had to pay everyone $25 an hour."

"I have no path to a living wage," said Education, Culture and Employment Minister R.J. Simpson in the Legislative Assembly on Thursday.
GNWT image

In a message to NNSL Media after the assembly sitting, Johnson said raising the minimum wage to $25 an hour would take a decade, but he believes the GNWT should formalize the $18 an hour wage top up to the new minimum wage.

"I think $18 is achievable in the life of this assembly. Everyone in the territory should be making at least $18 an hour right now. We have the highest cost of living. We should have one of the highest minimum wages in Canada – $13.46 (an hour) is just not helpful.

"(It) also makes it a weird position for those businesses to go back to giving their essential employees less than $18 an hour after we stop subsidizing it. Time to seize the opportunity of us giving those businesses millions of dollars to pay their employees more and get their support for a minimum wage increase," said Johnson.

Yellowknife-based organization Alternatives North has for several years published research on what a living wage should be in the NWT.

In a report from 2019, the group found that for a wage which allows for a decent standard of living, each parent in a family of four would have to earn $23.95 an hour in Yellowknife, $24.75 an hour in Hay River and $23.78 an hour in Inuvik, working 37.5 hours per week.

Alternatives North member Suzette Montreuil said officially raising the wage to $18 per hour would be good but the organization would still say it's not high enough.

"(A living wage) also helps with retention, so employers don't have to keep hiring and training new people. A living wage improves productivity at work," she said. "(The GNWT) has to look at how employment is a two-way street. They need to look at the full picture. The ability to make a wage that allows you to offer your family a decent quality of life is really important."