By Jack Bourassa
Buying groceries, going to the drugstore or running errands around town sounds like everyday activities that many of us do without thinking twice. Whatever we do, there is at least one activity that we all share: shopping. We all have "purchase power" and we use it every day. I wrote in the past about buying local, buying Canadian products and supporting our economy. I want to add to the list: buy from a store where employees are treated fairly.
It has come to my attention that many workers at stores around Yellowknife and elsewhere are not being treated fairly by their employers. I’m disappointed to learn that long-term and full-time employees are having their shifts reduced during the summer months and holidays. That’s the time when students are on vacation and hired by businesses in town.
The Northwest Territories minimum wage is $13.46 per hour, which is significantly lower than the Living Wage in Yellowknife. Imagine being paid just above the minimum wage, and later having your shifts reduced because students are hired in the summer. There is no need to imagine, this does happen in town. You might be reading my words while this happens to you or someone you know. For argument sake, let’s imagine the following scenario: a worker is paid $15. Their wage is just above the minimum wage. Summer time comes, the employer hires a student. Let’s assume that the worker’s shifts are reduced by an hour a day. That’s $150 in two weeks or $300 a month. What are the implications? Not only does the employee suffer but so does our economy. That’s $300 less they have to spend on movies, shopping or dinning out. Shifts get reduced in the summer, but the rent doesn’t. How would the worker adjust to this temporary, yet unsettling situation? Skip lunch everyday?
Summer, March break, holiday season, etc. are times many of us look forward to. Unfortunately, that’s not the cases with some workers who work at retail stores in Yellowknife. Those affected by reduced shifts would suffer financially and emotionally. This may also have a detrimental impact on their mental health causing stress and work-life imbalance. Having seasonally reduced shifts add to the volatile nature of the job. They still would not be able to take leave when they need to. Another complaint that came to my attention is workers in those retail stores have unpredictable work schedules. As a consequence, they are unable to plan their vacations, take leave or attend events in town. Shift times and days off frequently change when students are hired during the summer. Long term employees need to be appreciated.
On the other hand, customers are suffering as well. They are missing the opportunity to be helped by experienced long-term or full-time employees working in an environment where they feel appreciated. Students in such circumstance are hired because businesses are inclined to employ minimum wage workers and would continue to do so as it puts more money in their pockets. There are other ways to help students gain experience. Doing so must not affect workers, at the lower end of the wage scale, who are struggling to make ends meet for themselves and their families. If workers are not treated fairly, the next step may be having a shame list: “Stores to Avoid”.
Community members have the collective responsibility of caring for one another. There is no small action. All our actions count. Let’s all shop responsibly. Check for signs: do you think that workers are treated fairly? Do you have a friend who works at a retail store and complained about their reduced shifts? Let’s act together. It’s almost summer. As reducing shifts happen more often during this season, here is one action we can all do: find out which stores engage in such practices and take action. Remember, you have the “Purchase Power”. Let’s lift each other up and work together to ensure that no one is left behind.
This column originally appeared in Yellowknifer on May 29, 2019.