A new report suggests a living wage in Nova Scotia increased an “unprecedented” average of 14% this year, largely due to increased food and shelter costs.
Titled ‘Living wages in Nova Scotia 2023 update: Working for a living, not living to work,’ the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS) annual report was released on Thursday.
“More than half of those who are working are not earning a living wage. And the standard that we apply in order to do these calculations is about a quality of life. This isn’t a poverty wage. It provides a little bit of a cushion. But it’s still conservative,” CCPA-NS director and report author Christine Saulnier said in an interview Wednesday.
“We don’t include life insurance. We don’t include what would be necessary in order to own a house, for sure. If you have any family members with any significant health or disability needs, that’s not in the budget. You’re looking at over half of the working population not earning a living wage, which should concern us all.”
‘No doubt employees are struggling’
The report found that in Halifax, the living wage rate for two adults working full-time (35 hours a week) to support two children is now $26.50.
In the Annapolis valley economic region (Annapolis, Kings, and Hants counties), it’s $25.40. It’s $25.05 in the Southern region (Digby, Lunenburg, Queens, Shelburne, and Yarmouth counties). For those in the Northern region (Antigonish, Colchester, Cumberland, Guysborough, and Pictou counties), a living wage is $24.30. In Cape Breton, it’s $22.85.
The current minimum wage in Nova Scotia is $14.50 an hour, increasing to $15 on Oct. 1.
“It (the report) is a call for employers to take seriously the fact that if they are paying minimum wage, there is no doubt that their employees are struggling. And struggling in a major way. Not actually making ends meet in any way that would allow them to have any kind of quality of life,” Saulnier said.
“They’re likely working multiple jobs. They’re likely stressed out. Their health is being impacted. That’s absolutely clear…But the other piece is there’s a gap between income and costs, and how do we fill it? Yes, employers need to step up. But government needs to step up, too.”
‘Not seen this level of increase’
According to the report, the average increase was 14% year over year, with the largest increase in Northern (19%) and the smallest in Southern (11%).
The report found that increased shelter costs accounted for the most significant increase (18% on average) in the family budget. Food costs accounted for the second highest increase, at 11% in every region.
“We have not seen this level of increase since we started calculating the living wage in 2015,” the report said. “While some increased costs were due to methodological changes, most were due to inflation and cost of living increases. Comparing expenses in the regions, the three most significant expenses in all regions are shelter, food and child care.”
According to the report, Halifax has the highest shelter and child care costs, while Cape Breton has the lowest food and transportation costs. The Southern region has the lowest child care costs.
Although shelter costs are lowest in the Northern region, it also saw the biggest increase in shelter costs compared to others.
Skyrocketing cost of housing
Saulnier said more people are struggling due to skyrocketing shelter costs.
With vacancy rates that low [1%], turnover (move-out rates) at 11%, and without vacancy control (rent cap increases tied to the unit), it is unsurprising that the apartments that turned over in the past year saw rental increases much higher than those that did not. The difference between those units that turned over and those that did not is still shockingly large with the rental increase on those units.
For two-bedroom apartments in Nova Scotia, the average percentage change in rent between October 2021 and October 2022 for turnover units was 28% and 4% for non-turnover units, with the average difference being 23%. The significant gap between these two average increases also indicates that the rent cap makes a difference for those able to stay in their apartments. The average shelter costs increase in the living wage calculations was 18%, which includes the cost of utilities.
Saulnier said while they looked at inflation up until the end of June, had they included just one more month in the report, the living wage would’ve likely been higher due to increased gas prices.
However, the report also didn’t consider the federal climate incentive payment which Saulnier said will help people. She expects that will be reflected in next year’s living wage report.
“It’s the only thing I see on the horizon that might help offset a little bit, unless there’s an increase in those income transfers or some decrease in costs,” Saulnier said.
“Then there’s child care. We did not include the 50% reduction, because we know that more than 50% of families do not get access to that lovely, wonderful discounted child care. And if they did, we would include it and it would have an impact.”
‘Likely only going to get worse’
Saulnier said the provincial government hasn’t done enough to address the affordability crisis. She said initiatives like increasing the eligibility threshold for the Nova Scotia child benefit and increasing the amount aren’t enough because the threshold is “way too low” and the increased amounts “just aren’t enough.”
“We just have not seen government step up. We’ve had crisis after crisis from fires and flooding to food to rent, and very little systemic change from government. These are not one-offs,” Saulnier said.
“Unless we somehow get at the power structures and the systems and structures, this is a reality that’s likely only going to get worse. If government steps up, maybe it’ll stagnate…The reality is that we are asking our employers to really do a lot of the heavy lifting here. And while they should do some of the lifting, it isn’t entirely on them.”
Outlining what it would take to ensure low-wage workers can afford essentials and remain above the poverty line, the report outlines several recommendations. It calls on employers to pay a living wage and the provincial government to create decent working conditions by modernizing labour standards and removing barriers to unionization.
Raising the minimum wage, expanding government income benefits, and progressive taxation reform are also among the report’s recommendations.
“What I want Nova Scotians to get out of it (the report) is that they actually do deserve a living wage. They deserve a certain quality of life. They deserve to not just be working to pay bills,” Saulnier said.
“And if nothing else, I hope that those who are going to the grocery store and just wondering why it is they can’t make ends meet, that it is a confirmation that they are not alone and that this is the reality that too many are facing.”