In one of the last votes of its term, Halifax regional council approved a living wage requirement for most contracted workers.

As the Halifax Examiner reported earlier this month, municipal staff proposed the policy to council as part of a new code of conduct for suppliers:

It’s a response to council’s lukewarm reception of the social procurement policy passed in July — an optional policy, where departments “shall consider” including criteria like supplier diversity or a living wage when contracting out services.

In a recommendation report coming to council on Tuesday, senior procurement consultants Stephen Terry and Erin MacDonald recommend adding “a more robust Living Wage requirement” to the social procurement policy as part of a “Supplier Code of Conduct.”

“In addition to ethical, environmental, employment standards and workplace health and safety requirements that would apply to all contracts, staff recommend inclusion of a Living Wage requirement in the Supplier Code of Conduct for certain HRM contracts, including Solid Waste Services, Custodial and Janitorial Services, Snow and Ice Management, and Security Services as described further in this report,” Terry and MacDonald wrote in the report.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives updated the living wage for Halifax in a report earlier this month to $21.80 per hour. The new policy would come into effect April 1, 2021 and use that number until it’s updated again by CCPA and Living Wage Canada.

The motion passed Wednesday night by a vote of 13-4. Councillors Steve Streatch, David Hendsbee, Matt Whitman and Paul Russell voted no.

Coun. Lindell Smith spent most of his first term as councillor waiting on this policy, and made the case for it again on Wednesday.

“To me it’s simple. It might be costly, but it’s simple. Providing a living wage … to folks who are living on the edge is important, and I cannot imagine what families are dealing with when they have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet,” Smith said.

“And we have had employees in the past, you know, specifically some of our cleaners … who we would see during the day at city hall and then you go to the grocery store and you see them at the grocery store working overnight cleaning as well because that’s what they have to do to pay their bills. And for a living wage, we at HRM could be a leader in that.”

But many of Smith’s colleagues worried about the financial impact. The staff report pegged the annual cost at $8 million, but staff told council on Wednesday that they don’t know what the true impact will be in the 2021-2022 budget year.

Coun. Bill Karsten put forward an amendment under which council would have approved the policy in principle, pending final approval at budget time. That motion failed 9-8, with Mayor Mike Savage, and councillors Steve Streatch, David Hendsbee, Bill Karsten, Lorelei Nicoll, Tony Mancini, Russell Walker, and Stephen Adams voting yes.

Hendsbee then attempted to have the motion tabled, or deferred indefinitely. That motion failed on a vote of 14-3. Streatch, Hendsbee and Whitman voted yes.

Coun. Tim Outhit argued the change doesn’t necessarily mean a tax increase.

“It would almost be fear-mongering to say taxes are going to go up if we do this today,” Outhit said.

“We van be progressive while also being fiscally responsible, and I don’t think we are being one over the other today.”

Coun. Sam Austin argued council shouldn’t be so concerned with the dollar figure.

If this prompts some sort of tax increase down the line, I’m OK with that,” Austin said. “To keep taxes low on the backs of some of our most vulnerable citizens …  that to me is morally bankrupt.”

The effect of the passed motion won’t be immediate. As the municipality’s contracts end, the new ones will use the living wage, essentially phasing it in.

Smith raised concerns about the fact that there are municipal employees not making a living wage. The report addressed this too, as a risk:

Although the wages of full-time staff exceed living wage, if a Living Wage contracting approach is adopted contracted laborers may earn more that some casual, part-time or seasonal HRM and Library staff (lifeguards, fitness instructors, trainers, etc.)

Though he had an amendment prepared to address that disparity, Smith was told that chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé would bring that information, along with information on the cost of the living wage requirement, to council’s budget talks early next year.

There are other exceptions to the policy as well, as we reported previously, the construction industry would be exempt from the living wage requirement:

“This approach would exclude construction services which are generally constrained by collective agreements with the thirteen (13) building trades unions affiliated with the Mainland Nova Scotia Building Trades Council and instead focus on contracted services,” Terry and MacDonald wrote.

Also exempt from the living wage requirement: “students, interns and practicum placements for summer projects;” “contracts requiring fewer than 120 total person-hours of service per year;” “ad hoc contract work (for example emergency or non-recurring repairs or maintenance where no standing contracts are in place);” “volunteers;” “employees of organizations (for profit or not-for-profit) that lease property from the City;” and “social enterprise.”

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. “If this prompts some sort of tax increase down the line, I’m OK with that,” Austin said. “To keep taxes low on the backs of some of our most vulnerable citizens … that to me is morally bankrupt.”

    This quote gets to the essence of it for me.

  2. Bravo! This is long overdue. My compliments to Lindell Smith, Sam Austin and all who supported this motion.