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New Year’s Day on Minimum Wage Avenue

January 2, 2015


This New Year’s Day I thought that the part of West Broadway Avenue that cuts through the Fairview neighbourhood had a weirdly post-apocalyptic look about it.

Against the backdrop of lighter-than-normal vehicular traffic, people, individually and in small groups, could be seen milling about aimlessly along West Broadway; walking past block-after-block of shuttered shops. They often appeared a bit confused or dazed. Every so often they stopped to look in the window of a closed restaurant or coffee shop. Less often they found one that was actually open.

It’s as if a widespread power outage had occurred, or something like a typhoon had been forecast to hit at any moment.

In fact it was just business (or the lack thereof) as usual on New Year’s Day.

A bad way to start a new year if you ask me

Almost everything closes on Christmas Day; it’s traditional to spend the day with friends and family.

The closing of stores on New Year’s Day is a trend rather than a tradition. It seems to me that more businesses along the Fairview stretch of West Broadway were closed this year than last and some that planned to be open this New Year’s Day changed their mind at the last moment.

As for why — allowing that banks and government facilities close on the slightest pretext and that perhaps some employers have trouble attracting staff to work the day after the evening so many people spend getting drunk — I think that opening on New Year’s Day is increasingly seen as a money-losing proposition.

Store owners won’t open on New Year’s Day because they stand to make less than the cost of the wages they would have to pay their employees.

This New Year’s Day I loitered all along 10 blocks of West Broadway Avenue in order to photograph a whole list of things. In the process I saw plenty of people walking around between Cambie and South Granville Street but relatively few shops open. Why would these people be walking around on a shopping street if they didn’t want to shop?

From the way many of them stopped to look in certain windows, I think they at least wanted to get a coffee or a bite to eat.

I noticed several people pause at the door of the Waves Coffee House on the corner of Spruce Street in the 1000 block of West Broadway. Last year this business was open on both Christmas and New Year’s Day but this year it closed both days. In fact, nothing on either side of that block, including other coffee shops and restaurants, appeared to be open.

You might expect that all the newish condos along that part of West Broadway, backed by an entire dense neighbourhood of apartment buildings, would provide plenty of customers to support one or two good coffee houses any time they wanted to be open. You would have been right five years ago but not today.

I didn’t get down to the West End or West Boulevard on January 1 so I can’t say if this apparent ongoing decline in New Year’s Day consumerism is unique to the Fairview portion of West Broadway Avenue.

The tipping point before an economic downturn

I wish I knew how to encourage more of these little businesses to open up again on New Year’s Day, not to mention on Sundays, Mondays, or before 10 a.m.

As a homeless person I need restaurants and retail stores to be open but beyond that I think it sends a bad signal to visitors to see so many closed shops — like we’re going through a recession or something.

What if we started a tradition of tipping especially generously on New Year’s Day?

This would be good for the staff but I can’t see how it would encourage the owners of restaurants and coffee shops to open on New Year’s Day; unless the gratuities were so phenomenal that the employees could share their tips with their boss or work the day for nothing but tips.

Neither seems likely or practical.

Hopefully low-paid servers already experience a big boost in their tips between Christmas and New Years — they certainly deserve it and then some.

Perhaps the better idea, paradoxical as it sounds, might be to simply pay retail and service workers higher wages.

It seems like a recipe for economic stagnation to pay so many people such low wages that they can barely afford to shop in the sorts of stores they work for, yet this is clearly one of the practices that current neoliberal economic policy encourages.

When proponents of a living wage remind us that even a rapacious bastard like Henry Ford felt compelled to pay his workers enough so they could afford to buy the cars they built, neoliberals simply say that wasn’t why he did it.

The high cost of low wages

The retail/wholesale and food services sectors employ a very large number of Canadians (at least 1.84 million) and small businesses of 1 to 99 employees account for over 69 percent of all employment in Canada.

We’re talking a lot of low-paying jobs but it’s hard to pin down how many and how low-paying.

Back in 2008 (admittedly seven years ago) Statistics Canada apparently published numbers showing that some 346,100 B.C. workers earned less than $12 an hour: almost one in five of all the employees in the province.

The earliest Statistics Canada figures I can find on the subject actually seem to show that almost no one in B.C. actually works for minimum wage: a mere 2.3 percent in 2009.

Also according to Statistics Canada, the lowest average hourly wage in B.C. in 2014 was $18.25.

Of course, this is from a government that believes it can eliminate poverty by simply refusing to have an official definition.

I still think that most of the retail clerk and point-of-service employees I see along West Broadway are being paid little better than minimum wage.

Various sources, including the Globe and Mail, peg a Starbucks barista job as paying minimum wage with a benefits package if you work more than 20 hours a week. The Waves Coffee House chain also lists a barista job as starting at minimum wage.

How many of the servers in the restaurants along West Broadway are even getting $10.25-per-hour? My understanding is that restaurants that have a liquor license can legally pay a minimum wage of $9.00-per-hour.

Average rent outside the city centre of Vancouver is about $1,025.75 or $12,309 a year, or fully 68.3 percent of a full time $10.25 minimum wage job in B.C., which the Tyee calculates as $18,000 — $5,500 below the Canada-wide low income cut-off for large cities.

According to the Tyee calculation, I can still earn more money collecting returnable beverage containers than working full-time for B.C.’s minimum wage.

The Tyee calculates that a living hourly wage in Metro Vancouver would be $19.62.

How many of the employees working along the Fairview stretch of West Broadway Avenue make that much per hour?

How many of them can afford to shop in the stores they work for?

Just how many espresso beverages can a person afford to drink on a barista’s wages?

How do you grow a consumer economy by holding down wages and effectively shrinking the number of consumers?

Maybe the better question isn’t why stores are closing on New Year’s Day but how it is that stores manage to stay open for as many days of the year as they do. Click the image to enlarge it.

  1. Maybe part of the the answer to your last question about how the stores are able to stay open as much as they are is answered in the earlier part of your post – minimum wage workers. I work in a small retail shop in a busy tourist area that survives very well by paying minimum wage. Of course the employee turnover is insane but there is never a shortage of bright hard-working young individuals (particularly newcomers) to hire.

    • Slowcrow permalink

      Off topic but, where’s Stanley??? 😦

      • Only in rich country such as Canada could you have an unemployed homeless person pontificating about wages and the economy. Let me be the first to tell myself to get a job you bum!

    • You’re right Tiger. It’s supposed to work that way and it still can. Minimum wage jobs as entry-level employment for young people — get some valuable work experience and move on towards what you really want to do.

      But not everybody’s able to move on anymore.

      It’s striking to try and imagine just how high the percentage of minimum wage employment is along even just the 1.7 kilometres of West Broadway I’m referring to — and then to extrapolate outwards. How many of the 20- and 30-something’s working these retail and food service jobs can afford to live in Fairview?

      Where do they live? Should I be surprised that so many kids are continuing to live at home into their 20s and 30s? And what about the 40- and 50-somethings that I see peppering these jobs.

      I do not like the high turnover that occurs in the restaurants and coffee houses I patronize. When I go into the Waves at Spruce these days, the staff are different one day to the next and not surprisingly they make a fairly indifferent espresso beverage and so I don’t go there as much. I miss the second from the previous fanchisee who managed to keep the same staff for several years. The quality of their beverages was very high and I was happy to pay a premium and tip accordingly.

      That Waves, by the way, is interesting for the fact that while all the staff are young minimum wage employees, the customers are often disproportionately web entrepreneurs, real estate agents, sales people and retirees; there used to be a smattering of poor students in the evening who generally nursed one drip coffee but the Waves at Spruce has really slashed their evening hours.

      There’s something wrong with the picture I’m seeing. I may not know what it is but I can’t help but feel that whole swaths of Vancouver’s street-level economy are going to hell in a hand-basket (or perhaps an online shopping cart).

      For starters, minimum wage has been allowed to lag too far behind the cost of living.

      According to a Toronto Star item from today, a Statistics Canada report says the average minimum wage was $10.14 in 2013 and that the 1975 minimum wage, expressed in 2013 dollars, was $10.13. Okay, I grant you, that extra penny would make a difference — if we didn’t now round it away!

      I believe in the long-term benefits of paying a living wage. I strongly favour a $15 minimum wage and supporting local business. I do not believe that anyone who responsibly holds a regular job should net less income in eight hours than a binner can make in the same amount of time collecting bottles.

      I also believe in agricultural self-sufficiency and peace, love and understanding — all non-starters these days.

  2. I’m in agreement with you, Stanley! The current minimum wage is not reasonable nor sustainable. As a mature long time minimum wage earner I hold a somewhat cavalier attitude toward my employer but I kinda like it that way. They can be pretty darn demanding when you’re paid more! I’m lucky I can get by on it. I was only telling it like I see it – it’s not pretty for most but that’s how it is. If low income earners could get to keep more of their pay, say with higher personal tax exemptions, that would be a start in the right direction.

    As for agricultural self-sufficiency, my utopian dream is to see gorgeous fruit trees and veggies on every boulevard in Vancouver – neighbours sharing and feeding all in their own community.

    Peace and love to you, dear Stanley. I hope you’re staying warm and dry during this storm.

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