June 01, 2017

Ottawa Citizen: Carpinone: Yes, it is possible to pay your workers a high minimum wage

By Jessica Carpinone

I attended the announcement of the $15 minimum wage at Queen’s Park this week, along with labour organizers and activists that have been fighting for better wages and working conditions. I was there because I felt it was important, as a small business owner, to lend my voice to the conversation about decent work.

I run a small bakery in Ottawa with nine employees and two owners, which has, from day one, been committed to paying workers a living wage. Last year, we also introduced a full benefits plan for full-time employees. We put out schedules two to four weeks in advance, offer paid sick days and almost exclusively hire full-time permanent positions.

I am writing this now to tell other business owners that raising the floor is difficult, but is in fact 100 per cent possible.

It is by no means easy to run a small business. After three-and-a-half years, my personal income is just starting to creep up to what I need it to be in order to be self-sufficient. I contributed a lot of sweat equity into the bakery. My partner and I did not start with much capital, had to make money quickly and the personal sacrifices (mental, physical, financial) have been immense.

Running a bakery, restaurant or café is hard. It is harder than hard. I am absolutely not dismissing business owners’ legitimate fears about their companies’ financial health and viability. But I vowed, from the time when the bakery was nothing but an idea, that I would not build a business based on low-bar labour standards.

I just knew we could do better than poverty-level minimum wage, unfair scheduling practices, zero sick days, no breaks, endless days, wage theft and all the other practices so common in the food industry.

I do, however, want to state unequivocally that keeping people impoverished is not the answer to our problems.

Small businesses, especially retail and restaurants close all the time. One of the biggest factors is that commercial rent rates have appallingly low controls on them. When our leases come up for renewal, our landlords can give our spaces away to the highest bidder.

But businesses also close because of city construction that turns customers away; because they lose out to competitors; because of poor management; or simply because owners decide to move on. There are a number of reasons why businesses close, but paying fair wages is not one of them.

We have to stop taking advantage of low-wage workers as a means to keep our businesses afloat.

I cannot stress this enough: well-paid and satisfied workers are better for business. Not only are they willing to work hard for you, but their satisfaction is felt by customers. I can’t even begin to imagine the headaches of constantly hiring and re-training. The costs to training alone would sink me, no matter how low the minimum wage.

Our society does not have a wealth problem, we have a wealth distribution problem. We need to figure out how to level that playing field. We can surely do better.

This legislation is a start in that direction, because it raises the floor of wages for all workers and offers more stability and protection for those who need it most. I urge you all to support this new legislation.

Give it (and your workers) a chance to prove to you that the sky will not fall. Less poverty will be good for all of us.

Jessica Carpinone is a baker and co-owner of Bread by Us Bakery in Hintonburg.

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