SURVIVING ON THE BARE MINIMUM

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By Greg Hudson

On Feb. 1, the minimum wage is set to rise from $7.75 to $8.

But that 3.2 per cent increase probably won’t help ease the financial burdens many Ryerson students face.

Peggy Nash, the New Democratic Party (NDP) MP for the Parkdale-High Park riding, says that tuition fees have skyrocketed and students, who are often making minimum wage, aren’t able to keep up with the rising cost.

Nash introduced a private member’s bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 last October. Students are in just as much danger of living below the poverty line as anybody else since the pressures and prices are the same for everyone in the city, says Nash.

“The single most important determinant of health is not smoking, it’s not obesity, it’s not lack of exercise, or  poor air quality,” says Kathy Hardill from Health providers Against Poverty at an Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Raise the Rates rally Thursday. “The single most important determinant of health is income.

“What that means in plain language: The lower your income the higher your risk of getting sick,” says Hardill.

For Nash and other advocates, one of the reasons to raise the minimum wage is so that other wages would also go up in sync. But for some employers around campus, this isn’t the case.

Students employed by the Ryerson Student Union (RSU) already get paid more than minimum wage. The base pay for someone starting work at Copyrite, The Bookstore, or the front desk at student services is around $8.50. But because the annual budgets have already been made, wages won’t increase this year.

“Every year we make sure we’re competitive,” says Michael Verticchio, the RSU’s executive director of operations and services. “We try to beat the private sector.”

The RSU seems to be neck and neck with their private competitors. Although Dominion will be raising its base pay, the change won’t benefit all employees. Paul Ponterini, a manager at the grocery store, says that if an employee has worked their way to being paid $8 now, when the wage increase comes, there will be no raise.

Essentially, they’ll be back to earning minimum wage. Across the street at the Ram in the Rye, Emily Firko, a third-year business student, is working for less than minimum wage. In Ontario, those who serve alcohol are paid $6.75. When the minimum wage increases, their pay will jump 20 cents to $6.95. But Firko, dressed in the Ram in the Rye uniform and all-smiles, doesn’t mind her pay.

“More money would always be nice,” she says, “but I’m not going to complain now.” She estimates that at the end of a shift, when she includes tips, she makes about $20 an hour. “That’s better than retail.”

Firko started working at the Ram when she was in her first year. Like a lot of the restaurant’s employees, she stays because of the flexible hours and isn’t that worried about making ends meat. She lives at home at the moment, and would have to work a lot more shifts than her usual two a week if she were to try to live off her Ram income. “This is how I pay for books and a social life,” she says. Unlike other students, Emily says that she doesn’t have to pay for her tuition. Not all servers at the Ram were as optimistic as Firko. Some complained that the tips were sometimes poor, and all admitted that they couldn’t live solely on the money they make there since it was a part-time job. Many of them live with their parents or get loans to survive.

A Statistics Canada labour force survey predicts that more than half of those who earn minimum wage are students. If that is true, that is a lot of students incurring debt just to make it to next semester.

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty estimates that in order to live in Canada’s most expensive city, one would have to make no less than $10 an hour. “It’s easy for adults to romanticize the poverty of university,”says Peggy Nash, “but it’s not fun to live with debt.”

She also adds that it is important to remember things aren’t always easy for those people supporting children in school. On the provincial level, Cheri Dinovo, the NDP MPP for the same constituency as Nash, has also been fighting for a minimum wage of $10, but she wasn’t available to comment.

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