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Inside Vancouver’s Decision to Scrap Its Living Wage Commitment

Anger, disillusionment and a $1.6-million price tag to stay with the promise.

Zak Vescera 30 Oct 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Internal emails suggest City of Vancouver staff felt “significant anger and disillusionment” after city council voted to scrap the municipality’s living wage policy this year.

That’s how former chief equity officer Aftab Erfan described the reaction from staff after the city announced in March it would no longer guarantee a living wage, effectively cutting the guaranteed minimum pay for security guards, food vendors, janitors and other low-wage workers. Erfan left the job four months later.

“The internal communication is being experienced as confusing and inconsistent,” wrote Erfan on March 8. “What’s being explained is not actually making sense to staff, which is leading to all kinds of stories being made up.”

City manager Paul Mochrie said he was “not surprised” at what Erfan heard.

“Of course, I am not in a position to disclose anything,” Mochrie wrote in his reply. He offered to help clear up “consistent questions or misperceptions.”

“If folks simply disagree with the policy decision that is their prerogative and I am not sure if there is anything we can do about that,” Mochrie wrote.

Those emails are part of a cache of internal communications on Vancouver’s decision to scrap its living wage policy six years after it became one of the movement’s champions.

Those records, obtained by researcher Alicia Massie via freedom of information legislation and shared with The Tyee, indicate city managers discussed moving away from the hourly living wage months before city council voted to end that policy in a closed-door meeting this January.

The decision was condemned by labour groups, who said it was aimed at cutting costs at the expense of the city’s poorest workers.

“This is a giant step backward, and I think this puts a dark cloud over folks who work for the city,” Coun. Pete Fry said.

Behind the living wage

In 2017, Vancouver became the single biggest employer in B.C. to guarantee a living wage.

That meant it pledged to pay all staff and staff of contractors a minimum hourly wage calculated by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Living Wage for Families BC.

That wage is based on what a family of four people and two breadwinners needs to afford housing, basic necessities and some recreational activities.

The wage almost always increases each year but has gone down on a few occasions.

The hourly living wage in Vancouver increased from $20.52 to $24.08 in 2023, a record 17.6 per cent jump driven by inflation, food prices and high housing costs.

At the City of Vancouver, chief procurement officer Alexander Ralph warned that spike would force the city to increase payroll spending on both contracts and some full-time staff.

Patrice Impey, the city’s chief financial officer, reacted with alarm.

“I think the living wage group... will need to revisit their formula to allow for multi-year adjustments vs. annual adjustments which are quite disruptive to the marketplace,” she wrote in a Nov. 17, 2022, email.

The city proposed transition to a policy based on guaranteeing wages equal to a five-year average of the living wage.

The city made that request formally the next month. Anastasia French, provincial manager for Living Wage for Families BC, said the city asked her organization if it could keep its certification by instead paying a rolling average of living wages from preceding years.

She said her organization told the city that wasn’t possible. French said it wasn’t fair for low-wage workers, who were seeing their own spending on fuel, food and housing rapidly increase.

“The five-year fixed rates don’t really address the fact that their costs are going up right now,” French said. She said they offered the city extra time to meet the certification requirements.

Instead, city council voted to scrap the living wage commitment and move to a five-year rolling average.

The city’s new minimum wage, based on that formula, was $20.90 — a 1.9 per cent increase over the previous year, well below the rate of inflation and less than what it had already been paying its employees and service providers.

A number of part-time staff like civic theatre attendants, food vendors and parks staff did see their wages go down as a result. So did staff for at least nine contracted companies, including three security firms, janitors and 18 traffic control workers who are also Downtown Eastside residents, according to the FOI records obtained by Massie.

Those records peg “estimated impact” of continuing the living wage program for those nine city contractors at less than $1.7 million, though the city has not confirmed that figure.

The city has not publicly revealed how many workers lost out because of its decision or what it might have cost taxpayers to continue the living wage policy.

That information was shown to Vancouver city councillors at their January meeting. But since it was held in camera, councillors are legally bound not to release those details, nor can they be obtained via freedom of information request. The vote tally is also secret, though it is understood Mayor Ken Sim’s ABC party voted in support with the three remaining councillors in opposition.

Sim’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The secrecy of that meeting frustrated Massie, a Simon Fraser University PhD student who also works for Service Employees International Union Local 2. That union represents some private sector janitors who work for companies contracted by the city.

“If they have nothing to hide, why are they continuing to stonewall access to this very basic information?” Massie said. If it is true that this doesn’t affect a lot of people, that this was necessary for the city to do, why can’t we know the details? Why are they trying to hide it from us?”

Massie began filing freedom of information requests. Many records she sought — like notes from the meeting itself — were completely redacted under access laws.

But others offer hints about how the decision came to be, and the backlash that followed.

It appears councillors discussed basing their new wage off 10- and 15-year rolling averages, which would have resulted in a much lower wage.

Mochrie also told senior city officials he expected the wage would come down in future years, something French said she did not believe was true and had never communicated to the city.

The decision also drew concerns from Erfan, the chief equity officer, who told Mochrie that council’s decision would reverse the city’s progress towards meeting its equity goals.

“This decision is definitely a step back for equity no matter how it is justified,” wrote Erfan. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

In her annual equity report to council in June, Erfan noted the city’s approach to wages no longer met the provincial standard for a living wage, though she said that could change if the living wage decreased.

The city should pay all employees "at minimum a living wage" to maintain its standing in this area, Erfan wrote.

OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle has opposed the decision to scrap the living wage commitment and says she shares concerns that the decision will harm the city’s most disadvantaged workers.

“It was very reasonable of her [Erfan] to be clear about the impacts of that decision,” Boyle said. “It’s an important piece of meeting the city’s own goals.”

City policies mean councillors can’t bring a motion on the living wage until a year after the last vote. When that happens, Boyle says she plans to bring a motion to reinstate the wage.

Fry said he supports reinstating the wage. “Some of the people doing this work are doing incredibly difficult work. We ask a lot of them. And I don’t feel right shortchanging them,” he said.

Like Massie, Fry and Boyle say they’re also frustrated by the secrecy around the vote.

In camera meetings are often used to discuss legally and financially sensitive information. But once a decision is made public, Fry believes there’s no reason to withhold the information council was given.

After Boyle revealed how she had voted, Sim responded by submitting a complaint about her to the city’s integrity officer, who confirmed Boyle had acted appropriately — but only after she spent $7,000 in legal fees.

“The whole process has been incredibly frustrating,” she said.

Massie plans to keep digging. In the meantime, she says, she wants the city to do an about-face.

“They are doing the dirty, messy, gross work that none of these senior leaders at the city would want to be doing, and they’re doing it for a wage that isn’t even enough to live in the city of Vancouver,” Massie said.  [Tyee]

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