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Small business owners tell legislative committee, raising minimum wage to $15 isn't affordable

'We're trying to survive, we're trying to provide jobs and it's getting more difficult all the time'-Tom Morrow, small business owner

Minimum wage increases was top priority during presentations by students, labour leaders, business owners and the Chamber of Commerce during a public consultation process in North Bay Tuesday. 

The Ontario legislature's Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs wrapped up a two day trip to Northern Ontario with a full day of hearings in North Bay on Bill 148, Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act 2017. 

In addition to making amendments to the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act, the Bill proposes pay increases in 2018 and 2019 which would see the minimum wage rise to $15 an hour.               

What the committee heard from the business community is that proposed changes to the minimum wage is too much, too fast. 

Tom Morrow, Owner of Powassan Home Hardware, says a small independent business owner can't afford the kind of increase the Liberal government is suggesting.

"We're in a competitive atmosphere, we're fighting off the international big box stores. We're trying to survive, we're trying to provide jobs and it's getting more difficult all the time," said Morrow.

"We can't raise our prices above our competitors and we can't lose our level of service by firing people or laying them off. So neither can happen. But the bottom line is the increase our store would face would eat up our entire bottom line, then we're out of business."

The President of the North Bay and District Chamber of Commerce refers to businesses across Ontario are the life blood of the economy. How the changes will affect business must be taken into consideration. 

"We're not opposed to the increase in minimum wage, we're opposed to the speed in which it's being instituted and without knowing what the economic impact is going to be. We've asked through our Ontario Chamber, that the Provincial Government provide an economic impact statement to see how all these changes are going to impact our business community. Unfortunately it's not being done," said Peter Chirico.

"Businesses won't have a chance to catch up, or there will be a direct add on to consumer pricing which spawns inflation. So the Ontario Chamber has commissioned an independent economic impact study which is due out in August. Hopefully today we'll be able to convince the committee to at least take a look at that and hold off the legislative changes until that economic impact statement is produced." 

The North Bay and District Labour Council has long fought for a minimum wage increase. Henri Giroux used the example of a single mom, who has to work two minimum wage jobs to take care of herself and her baby. At the end of the month she still needs to access the Food Bank just to make ends meet. He says he hears stories of personal struggles far too often.

During his presentation, Giroux focused on the use of replacement workers during times of labour unrest.

"We want to make sure they ban replacement workers. We had a situation a few years ago in the area where a strike lasted 10 months, and another case where employees were locked out for about five months. There was no incentive for the employer to sit at the table and bargain because the work was getting done. Not as good, but it was still getting done. We believe replacement workers prolong strikes."  

Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli who sat at the committee table in North Bay, wanted to hear concepts that could be used as amendments, to make it a better Bill.

"This is going to affect everybody. It will affect some very positively and some negatively and that's why we're here. We're eager to hear from all of the people in Ontario so that if there are things that surprise us, that the committee didn't think of, that we have an opportunity to make amendments and changes in the bill, before the bill actually is tabled for a final vote." 

The chair of the North Bay hearing, Scarborough-Agincourt Liberal MPP Soo Wong said the public hearings are critical. Wong said she was surprised she didn't hear more conversation about other amendments to the province's employment and labour laws. Wong said issues like ensuring part-time workers make the same hourly wage for the same job as those working full time, or expanding personal emergency leave also need to be addressed. 

"The proposed legislation includes other parts that has never been talked about or reviewed or revised. So it was very interesting the fixation just focusing on minimum wage. It missed all the other conversations to protect whether you're an employer or an employee in Ontario, so that's very interesting," said Wong.

As Liberal MPP for Etobicoke-Lakeshore and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Labour, Peter Milczyn says it has been a long time since the labour laws in Ontario have had a major update. 

"This is almost a once in a generation, once in a lifetime-some people are saying, opportunity to make changes. We want to get it right because we had a really good consultation process for two years with the Changing Work Places review. We know we've already hit a lot of the changes that need to be done, but we do want to hear from people whether its tweeks or whether there's some things we've missed," said Milczyn. 

North Bay is the second of 10 stops across the province. Once the consultation process wraps up, a report will be crafted, the committee will get together over the summer and by time the legislature gets back in September, the bill will be ready for debate and a final vote.