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Living wage will cost SFU less than 0.1 per cent of budget: report

Becoming Canada's first living wage university will cost Simon Fraser University less than 0.1 per cent of its annual budget, according to a report released yesterday by the Living Wage Campaign for Families.

The report, Simon Fraser University: Becoming the First Living Wage University in Canada, calls on the University to implement a living wage policy and ensure all its contracted service workers are paid a living wage.

A teaser of the report released earlier this month showed 73 per cent of surveyed contracted workers, including security guards, childcare workers, research assistants, and food service workers, made less than $19.14 per hour, the living wage for the Lower Mainland.

The survey was only filled out by 40 of the hundreds of contracted workers on Simon Fraser University (SFU) campuses, but salary information was garnered from the most recent collective agreements. Campaign Director Michael McCarthy Flynn says although the salaries were below a living wage, for the most part they weren't surprising.

"One thing that did surprise me was that both the janitorial and the food service workers were actually not just below a living wage, but were actually below the average wage for their sector in B.C.," said Michael McCarthy Flynn, citing figures from 2009.

Half of survey respondents reported receiving any non-mandatory benefits like Medical Services Plan contributions and extended health and dental insurance. In some cases that boosted their hourly wages to a living wage or above. But in others it still wasn't sufficient.

Some of the lowest wages were paid to research assistants, who could make anywhere from less than minimum wage to $30 per hour. But the report adds research assistant funding is complicated, as graduate students who fill these positions could be working on projects related to their thesis and are encouraged to view compensation as education "funding." This can result in unpaid overtime work or hourly wages dropping below the minimum wage.

The report shows that students, already saddle with tuition fees, aren't able to afford the necessities on research assistant wages. One survey respondent told the Campaign a living wage would change his situation because "to begin with my wife would probably be able to finally get the surgery she needs."

The estimated cost to the University of implementing a living wage policy was calculated by looking at the cost to municipalities who have already implemented such policies. The City of New Westminster estimated it would cost their city 0.25 per cent of its budget, whereas American studies of living wage municipalities show it typically costs closer to 0.1 per cent. Given the size of SFU, the campaign predicts a living wage would cost the University much less.

"This won't happen immediately. We're asking for all new contracts, rather than get them to renegotiate existing contracts. So there's space for SFU to budget for this over the next number of years when those contracts come up for renewal," said McCarthy Flynn.

A living wage policy could also benefit the University and its contractors directly, the report predicts. Based on studies of other organizations with living wage policies, these benefits include improved worker performance, a decline in employee absenteeism, low employee turnover, an increase in consumer spending, and improved reputation as a socially responsible organization.

McCarthy Flynn says SFU has indicated it is taking the report seriously, assigning staff to look at the cost of implementing a living wage policy and an analysis of who would be covered by the policy. The University has agreed to meet with the Campaign when their analysis is complete.

"We're waiting to see what the response from SFU is and hopefully get into some serious discussions with them before we decide what we're going to do next," he said.

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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