June 26, 2017

Niagara This Week: Paying living wage boosts morale, productivity, staff retention

By Paul Forsyth

Poverty Reduction Network pegs realistic wage at $17.57

NIAGARA — Damin Starr used to think being a smart boss meant distancing yourself from your workers and paying miserly.

He’s learned the opposite is true.

Five years ago, Starr was at a crossroads: the metal parts and fabricating business he owns with his wife Debra in Vineland was still struggling to recover from the Great Recession of 2008, his workforce was plagued by turnover, and Starr was working tortuously long hours that robbed him of precious time with his wife and six kids.

Starr admits a big part of that was his fault: when he launched Pre-Line Processing he paid his staff as little as he could and he purposely distanced himself from them — in large part because he didn’t want to get close to people he might eventually have to lay off when times got tough.

That led to a workforce that was unmotivated. Starr had to always be there to crack the whip.

“My business was a struggle,” he told a gathering of the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network (NPRN) on June 23 at the McBain Community Centre in Niagara Falls. “I was always at my business because I was always trying to make people do stuff when they really didn’t value what they were doing.

“They felt they were a slave to the environment,” he said. ”They felt there was nothing in it for them.”

That led to Starr spending all his hours at work.

“I became a slave to my own environment,” he said.

By 2012, he knew things had to change if his business was to survive and if his family life was to get the attention it desperately needed. He sat down with employees and asked them what they wanted out of their jobs, and increased their pay so they all got a living wage — pegged by the NPRN at Friday’s announcement at $17.57 per hour.

Starr said he’s now able to work regular 40-hour weeks and take vacations because he knows he has loyal employees who he can trust completely to keep the shop running.

“You have to be able to trust your employees,” he said. “You have to be able to delegate to them and have them take ownership of their jobs.”

The new-found relationship, forged in part due to the living wage, has resulted in better productivity and focus, higher morale and virtually no staff turnover.

Starr and his wife were honoured by the NPRN for being the first certified living wage employer in Niagara.

Lori Kleinsmith with Bridges Community Health Care, which deals with many people in south Niagara living in poverty, said paying a living wage — meant to allow families to fully participate in society through such things as sports and recreation for kids and other community activities rather than simply paying for the bare necessities such as rent and food — may not be possible for every employer.

“We know there are definitely businesses that are not always in a position to increase their wages to $17.57 an hour,” said Kleinsmith, chair of the NPRN’s wage committee. “Many of them are struggling.”

But the hope is to get people talking about the importance of living wages and supporting low-income people through things such as improved transit and more affordable child care, she said.

“If we don’t do that, we’re going to continue to see far too many families, struggling, not meeting their basic needs and unfortunately many living in very deep poverty,” said Kleinsmith.

Glen Walker, chair of the NPRN, said the outcry from some business organizations over the province’s announcement that it’s increasing the Ontario minimum wage to $15 by 2019 shows there are misconceptions about the impact of decent wages on employers.

“There’s always lots of myths and rumours around: you raise something and everybody’s going to be struggling and suffering and businesses are going to be eliminated,” he said. “At the end of the day, research is saying … no, it’s not.”

Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty, and co-founder of the Ontario Living Wage Network, said Niagara is joining part of an international movement to pay living wages.

“They’re part of a growing movement of progressive employers right across the province who are saying yes to higher wages because they have seen benefits,” he said.

Starr said he may only employ about five people, but he’s hoping to inspire other businesses to adopt a living wage policy.

“I’m employing people,” he said. “If I’m going to do it, it’s got to make their lives better.

“If it doesn’t do that, I haven’t met my obligations as an employer,” said Starr. “That’s what I came to realize.”

Read the Niagara This Week story