01/22/2012 02:00 EST | Updated 03/23/2012 05:12 EDT

New Brunswick Considers Offering Different Minimum Wage For Tip Earners


FREDERICTON - A debate over two-tiered minimum wage in New Brunswick has pitted the interests of the food service industry against those of social advocacy groups.

For months, the provincial government has been studying the idea of paying workers who earn tips a different minimum wage. Late last year it posted a survey online in an effort to seek public opinion on the matter.

Larry Haiven, a business professor at St. Mary's University in Halifax, said other provinces in Atlantic Canada may consider the issue if New Brunswick goes that route.

"Every time a province moves to a two-tiered minimum wage for servers, it is encouragement for other provinces to do the same," Haiven said.

"Certainly the bar and restaurant owners will be using that to push for it in other provinces."

Luc Erjavec, Atlantic vice-president of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, agreed.

"If New Brunswick moves forward on it, I think that sends a positive signal that this could happen in other jurisdictions," said Erjavec, who has lobbied for a two-tiered minimum wage.

"P.E.I. and Nova Scotia tend to be a little more conservative in terms of thinking outside of the box. New Brunswick is in a financial situation where they have to think outside of the box and look at ways of stimulating business."

Erjavec said he would like New Brunswick to adopt the model in Ontario, where only people who work in establishments that serve alcohol are paid a different minimum wage.

"It recognizes that the average cheque in these places is higher than the average cheque in a Tim Hortons or general service restaurant," he said.

But Jean-Claude Basque of the New Brunswick Common Front for Social Justice said a two-tiered minimum wage would "impoverish thousands of workers and their families who are struggling to survive."

He said it's unreasonable to consider tips when discussing minimum wage because that would be tantamount to asking customers to subsidizing the workforce.

"Tips are for the service," he said. "It's not for the job you're doing."

Basque and other organizations have written the provincial government to oppose the idea.

Labour Minister Martine Coulombe did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Liberal labour critic Chris Collins said he fears the Conservative government will implement a two-tiered minimum wage — something he said would buckle "to the wants and desires of business in the province, and not to the people of New Brunswick."

Government officials have not said when a decision on the minimum wage will be made.

New Brunswick's minimum wage was supposed to increase from $9.50 to $10 an hour last fall. But that was put on hold until April 1 following complaints from some businesses that the minimum wage was rising too quickly.

Erjavec said he would like to see a difference of 25 to 50 cents in an initial rollout of a two-tiered minimum wage, up to a $1.50 gap eventually.

In its survey, the New Brunswick government said current wages would not be reduced if it were to proceed with a two-tiered minimum wage. Erjavec agreed with that idea.

Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia pay different minimum wages to people who collect tips.