Paycheque to Paycheque: what it’s like to live on minimum wage in Toronto
A minimum-wage job is rarely enough to make ends meet in an exceedingly expensive city
In June, Ontario’s minimum wage rose from $10.25 to $11 an hour. That’s a record in Canada, only matched by Nunavut, but still not much to live on if you work 40 hours a week. The stereotype of a minimum-wage earner is a high school student working a summer job, when in reality many people often hold those jobs for life: almost 40 per cent of minimum-wage workers are 25 or older. According to Statistics Canada data, the number of people earning at or near minimum wage has more than doubled in Ontario since 2003. The spike in low-wage workers is more proof, if you need it, of the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots. The same survey showed that the majority of low-wage earners are visible minorities, immigrants and women, which while hardly a shocker presents uncomfortable evidence of a kind of discrimination we wanted to believe was long extinct. In the following pages, we meet four Torontonians who work the jobs no one wants—the jobs many people are simply grateful to have.
I was born in Pangasinan in the Philippines. I got my nursing licence in 1996 and was hired by a hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I had my son there in 2003—I broke up with his dad, so I’ve been a single mom from the beginning. In 2005, I left my son with my parents in the Philippines and moved to Toronto as part of the Live-in Caregiver Program. I cared for an elderly lady for three years, for about $1,200 a month. In 2007, I got my residency, and finally my son came to Canada and we were reunited.
I get placements as a personal support worker through non-profit agencies. Most of the clients are elderly and disabled, and I help them with daily tasks—washing them, brushing their teeth, light housekeeping, helping them eat. I don’t earn a lot of money, but it’s more than what I was earning before I became a resident. I also clean people’s houses for extra money.
I mostly cook and eat at home, but to treat my son occasionally, I know all the deals by heart—Monday there’s a special at Popeyes, KFC has toonie Tuesdays. I used to shop for clothing at Goodwill, but then I realized that clothing is just as inexpensive if you shop the end-of-season sales at the mall. Sometimes my son wants or needs something—a laptop for school or new running shoes—and I do splurge on that. And I’m always saving wherever I can—I’ll put $25 into my RRSPs and $25 into my son’s RESP. I also try to save to fly home to visit my family. I can only afford to go every four to six years. Our plane tickets are about $2,000, and I budget extra for the trip so I can bring presents to family. I worry my son will forget his grandparents if we don’t go back more often.
Visa Payments: $50
Total Debt: $800
I moved here from Nova Scotia three years ago, planning to be an actor. I didn’t get any roles off the bat, so I took a job as a server at Medieval Times. It’s a surprisingly fun job: I get to watch horses and men in shiny tights, and there’s a falcon flying overhead. I work there Thursday through Sunday, more often when we do matinées or morning shows. Then Monday to Friday, from 6:30 to 9:30 in the morning, I babysit for a family in Forest Hill with two small kids. It’s pretty laid back. We do a lot of playing.
I share a two-bedroom apartment with a friend I know from high school. We’re on different schedules so we don’t see a lot of each other, but we still try to share expenses to keep costs low. We split Internet fees, and when we hang out we try to keep it cheap: Netflix instead of going out, or board games from second-hand stores.
I usually go home twice a year: once during the summer and once at Christmas. This year, however, I’ve been home three times already, once for a funeral and once when my mom had surgery. When I had to buy a new couch, my mom helped me with that. She paid half and I put the rest on my credit card. I tried to pay that off immediately, to keep the interest down. Then in June, my laptop died and I had to get a new one, so that was a really big expense.
I make it work by budgeting. I live for Tuesday movies at Cineplex, and I don’t drink or go to many restaurants or eat much takeout. I feel anxious sometimes about going deep into debt, but that’s life.
Credit Card Payments: $400
Total Debt: $1,200
Since 2006, I’ve been working full-time during the summer, and part-time during the school year, in order to pay my way through school. I already have one degree in psychology from York, and now I’m studying public health at Ryerson. At work, I’m on my feet for long hours, carrying loaded trays, lifting heavy things such as ice buckets and stacks of dishes, running in and out of hot kitchens. As I’m getting older, I’m noticing lower back pain, feeling stressed and even losing my voice from having to yell in the noisy kitchen.
In September, I found an apartment at Yonge and Finch—the first place I’ve had to myself. It’s hard to be up at five in the morning for work if you have a roommate who’s kept you awake the previous night.
Three years ago, my parents bought a house in Aurora, and I helped contribute to the down payment, which put me a year behind in my plans to go back to school. Since then, there have been a few times when I’ve made the mortgage payments for them or helped them with an overdue gas bill.
I plan out my budget on paper—for example, I know my rent is $500, then I’ll budget $73 for my cell phone. My main splurges are wine and eating lunches when I’m at school, because I hate carrying around lunch bags.
I hope to graduate from Ryerson in 2015 and either start a master’s in epidemiology or get a job with a public health agency. I’d love to be able to help with the current Ebola outbreak or with future potential pandemics, like the avian flu.
Cell Phone: $73
Car Insurance: $200
Total Debt: $7,000
I have a degree in biology and psychology from Cape Breton University but haven’t been able to find any work above $12.30 an hour. I’m full-time at Home Depot now and get benefits: two weeks’ vacation, three sick days and one float day. I also get some prescriptions covered and $1,500 in dental. The job itself is mind-numbing, frustrating and physically demanding. I stock shelves, help customers, label products. To pay my bills, I also work as a server four nights a week at a small Greek restaurant on the Danforth.
No dinners out, Groupon for anything fun, no new clothes. I rent a bachelor apartment on Lake Shore West. It’s a bit expensive, but I love it—no roommates, and it’s near the water.
I’ve lost count of how many other jobs I’ve applied for over the years. I’ve submitted resumés for 20 this week alone. I once applied for EMS dispatch, and there were 900 applicants for three spots. Most job postings don’t advertise the rate of pay, so it’s only after you do two or three interviews and get offered the job that you find out it’s minimum wage or just above. My long-term goal is to join the police force, but I’m worried about not making it because I won’t have time in my 60-plus hour work week to train for the physical. I’m concerned I just might be too burnt out.
People ask me if I want to have kids, but on these wages, how could I? I thought I’d be married by now, with a family and a normal life: taking vacations, fighting about who’s going to do the dishes. Instead, I’m tired all the time and getting treated like a second-class citizen by customers.
Car Payments: $380
Total Debt: $0