Whistler businesses, employees lukewarm on planned wage hike 

Will NDP's $15 minimum wage be enough to counter resort's rising living costs?

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF WHISTLER BLACKCOMB - wage bump Whistler's restaurant and retail sectors in particular are expected to be most impacted by the B.C. government's plan to raise the provincial minimum wage.
  • PHOTO courtesy of whistler blackcomb
  • wage bump Whistler's restaurant and retail sectors in particular are expected to be most impacted by the B.C. government's plan to raise the provincial minimum wage.

Earlier this month, B.C.'s new NDP government outlined its plans to raise the provincial minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021, a move that has been met with some trepidation from both Whistler's business community and frontline staff.

The first 50-cent increase announced by the previous Liberal government will go ahead as planned on Sept. 15, bringing the minimum wage to $11.35 an hour. Following that, new labour minister Harry Bains said the plan is to make "gradual, predictable increases" to the minimum wage in order to curb the impact on businesses.

But, according to Whistler Chamber of Commerce CEO Melissa Pace, some local employers are weary of the NDP's timeline.

"There's a concern that there's not sufficient time within the next few years for the business models that are out there to increase to $15, and that it might really impact their bottom line and service," she noted.

Pique also gauged locals' appetite for higher wages through a social-media callout, and, while the responses were certainly mixed, the general consensus seemed to be that, while a positive first step, raising B.C.'s minimum wage to $15 would do little to counter the crippling affordability issues already facing Whistler's workforce.

"$15 is not sustainable in any community in B.C., nor is disability assistance or regular social assistance," wrote Kristin Reierson in a Facebook thread.

The reality is Whistler's high cost of living has already pushed many local businesses to go above and beyond B.C.'s minimum wage. According to the chamber's 2016 Working in Whistler survey, 75 per cent of employees polled said they make at least $15 an hour, and 37 per cent said they feel their wages aren't enough to cover their daily needs.

"I think ($15) is the minimum needed to live here and still enjoy being here instead of working all hours, but it could really impact the small businesses that are already struggling with the ridiculous rental prices that just keep rising," said local Jennifer Bridges.

Pace believes Whistler's retail and restaurant sectors in particular will feel the brunt of the wage bump, added costs that are likely to be passed onto the consumer.

"We're a price sensitive business," said Samurai Sushi owner Ru Mehta, "so we'll probably eat some of those costs and the prices will go up to take care of that."

One way employers have enticed job applicants during Whistler's labour shortage is by offering a range of benefits that businesses in other communities typically don't consider, such as ski passes and staff housing, perks that could fall by the wayside if companies' bottom lines suffer under B.C.'s new wage system.

Mehta, who employs a number of Japanese and Korean staff, has had to get creative with his recruitment. He pays a headhunter in Japan to recruit employees, covers half the cost of airfare for returning staff, and can house up to 20 employees in the staff housing he rents out.

And yet, despite all his efforts, Mehta still struggles to fill positions in the summertime. It should come as no surprise then that Mehta, along with many other locals Pique heard from, pointed to housing as the root cause of Whistler's staffing issues that desperately needs addressing.

"With rental supply so limited relative to demand, it'd be naive to think any extra income won't immediately be absorbed by rental price increases," said resident Rodney Payne.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has touted its Home Run program as one way to tackle the resort's ongoing housing and labour shortages. Designed to encourage residential property owners to connect with employers in need of staff housing, the initiative has yet to make much of a dent in Whistler's housing crisis, with only seven homeowners matched with local businesses since the program was announced last December (though eight new property owners have inquired about the program since the RMOW rolled out its new Business Licence Bylaw for nightly rentals last month. More info at homerun.whistlerhousing.ca).

But there is relief on the way. The Whistler Housing Authority (WHA) has four new resident-restricted rental projects in the works, and the Mayor's Task Force on Housing is expected next month to unveil additional new housing initiatives that have been developed over the past year.

A community forum on housing is also being planned for early November.

"Suffice to say, there has been a lot of meaningful and exciting new work completed and in progress on housing initiatives for our local residents," said WHA general manager Marla Zucht in an email.

There are currently 813 applicants on WHA's rental waitlist.

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