‘If we can do it, you can do it’: Why some Ontario non-profits are boosting their lowest wages to $18 an hour — or more.

Many of the organizations listed as ‘living wage employers’ by the Ontario Living Wage Network are non-profits or charities.

Why It Matters

The reputation of some social service organizations for paying low wages is at odds with a mission of alleviating poverty.

At the start of 2021, the lowest paid staff member at FoodShare Toronto, a food security non-profit, was making $15 an hour — above the provincial minimum wage, but nowhere near enough to afford rent and other essentials in Toronto. 

Shortly after Paul Taylor, FoodShare’s executive director, was hired in 2017, the organization reviewed its pay grid and bumped the bottom rung by 25 percent, while the top three ‘bands’ on the pay grid didn’t change at all. Then, in May, FoodShare Toronto announced it would pay a minimum wage of $22.08 an hour, the estimated ‘living wage’ for anyone living in the Toronto area. Months later, FoodShare bumped their minimum wage again to $24/hr.

Katie German, FoodShare Toronto’s director of advocacy and programs, says the non-profit’s decision to bump its pay rates was about practicing what it preaches. “It’s a commitment to justice,” German says of FoodShare’s decision. “It’s a commitment to good work and decent work. It’s living out our values around equity when it comes to work.” 

For a lot of charitable sector employees, “anti-poverty work” means programs and services for poor clients. It doesn’t always mean self-reflection, or understanding how low wages by employers, including non-profits, can contribute to poverty. 

The Ontario Living Wage Network defines a living wage as the minimum amount a worker needs to cover all the costs of living in a particular region for a family of four, including two children. On its website, the Network posts regional living wage calculations that range from $16.30/hr in Sault Ste. Marie to $22.08/hr in Toronto. 

Not one region surveyed by the Network has a living wage equivalent to Ontario’s current minimum wage of $14.35 an hour, or its scheduled increase next year to $15/hr. As the Ontario Living Wage Network explains, low-wage workers are forced to make impossible choices: buy food or heat the house, feed their children or pay rent. Oftentimes, this forces workers to have multiple jobs and work long hours. “Employees that earn a living wage can face fewer of these stressors; employers that pay a living wage can be confident they are not keeping their employees in poverty,” its website says.

The inadequacy of Canada’s various minimum wages have been well-documented for decades, but cost-of-living increases during the COVID-19 pandemic are bringing the plight of low-wage workers into stark relief. Statistics Canada says the 4.4 percent inflation rate in September was the highest the country has seen since 2003, with a 4 percent jump in the cost of food. Meanwhile, gas prices hit record highs of $1.45/litre in October, while average monthly rents in Canada are returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Cultivating Hope Foundation, another food security organization based in Ontario’s Niagara region, trains workers from low-income backgrounds to work in the area’s farms and wineries. Helen Castonguay, president and executive director of the Foundation, says she always paid her workers a couple of dollars above the provincial minimum wage, but didn’t learn about the living wage program until she joined the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network. 

“When I found out about it and I inquired about it and did more research on it, the living wage program only made sense,” she tells Future of Good. “The whole point of the program is to reduce poverty. The goal of our program is to reduce poverty.” Cultivating Hope currently pays its workers a minimum wage of $18.25 an hour, just over the Niagara region’s calculated living wage of $18.12. (“I don’t like odd numbers!” Castonguay jokes. “$18.25 is a nice, round number to multiply”).

Non-profits and charities are commonly found on the Ontario Living Wage Network’s directory of living wage employers, according to Northumberland United Way CEO Bobbie Dawson. This may seem at odds with the struggles many non-profit and charitable organizations have in securing grants for administrative costs, including staff salaries — which comprise at least 57 percent of a typical charity’s expenses, according to a 2017 report from Charity Intelligence Canada. 

German says FoodShare Toronto began including the cost of its living wage increase in requests to grantmakers. So far, she says, no one has taken issue. “I’ve written many grant applications since we’ve made this change,” she says. “And no one has said: ‘can you adjust that?” 

German also says grantmakers and donors who pay attention to a charity’s work are going to keep an eye on what they do internally, rather than just the public positions they take on poverty, racism, and gender-based violence. Bumping pay for lower-paid jobs is the least a charity concerned about these social issues can do. “These are things where you can actually make a material difference,” German says, “that are in line with the statements and messages you put out.”

When the Mississauga Food Bank decided it wanted to become a living wage employer in 2020, director of people Candace Jarvis says the Ontario Living Wage Network hadn’t calculated a rate for Peel Region, which includes Mississauga. So it reached out to the region’s Poverty Reduction Council and worked with the Network to come up with a provisional living wage rate (Mississauga Food Bank’s current minimum wage is $20.60 an hour) although Jarvis says they will fall in line with the living wage of Peel Region when it is announced. 

Although it is too early to gauge the full impact of Mississauga Food Bank’s decision to move to a living wage, Jarvis says it has a “very minimal impact” on the charity’s spending. The team is quite small, she says, and just 1 to 3 percent of Mississauga Food Bank’s donations go to administrative costs. “We explained it to our donors…that we’re investing in our organization and we’re investing in the people,” she says, “and it is part of advocating for a quality of life that, in Peel, shouldn’t be a question.” 

In fact, Jarvis says, the first email she got when she brought up paying a living wage at Mississauga Food Bank was a grant writing staffer. “Instead of saying ‘oh gosh, our donors are going to flip out’,” Jarvis recalls, “she said: ‘Oh my God, this is great content. I want to share this when I’m writing grants. Please send me everything you have.”