When I was 30 years old, I quit my full-time, well-paying job to open a cheese store. In a small market. In a recession. That was two years ago. To date we’ve never lost money, never ended a month in the red and, oh yeah, we pay our staff $15 per hour.
I live in Regina, Sask., where I moved after finishing my masters and falling in love with a fella from the Prairies. Prior to starting my adventure in entrepreneurship, I had spent eight years working in communications and project management in a variety of fields, from the public sector to energy and the environment. I am ambitious and hardworking, and had recently moved to what seemed like a dream job, only to find out — it wasn’t.
After struggling for close to a year to “make it work,” I realized I was miserable. I applied to do my PhD and spent a few months waking up at 4:30 in the morning to draft a business plan so I could apply for start-up business funding. I decided I would do whichever I heard back from first. By May 2017, I had $45,000 in financing for a gourmet food shop.
As a young professional still paying off $40,000 in student loans, a $45,000 chunk of cash was (and is!) a lot of money. However, in the context of building a business from scratch, it doesn’t go very far. Fridges run over $3,000, and glassed-in display cases are upwards of $8,000. Saskatchewan was in the midst of an economic downturn, and while wages had stagnated or fallen, unfortunately, commercial rents hadn’t. Regina is also a meat-and-potatoes and pierogi-and-sausage kind of town, so selling raw milk chèvre was a bit of a gamble. Regardless, I found an ideal location and got busy figuring out how to build a store and a sustainable business.
One of the most important things for me was hiring at least one other person. I’m completely extroverted, but I knew spending 14 hours a day, six days a week at my new venture wasn’t feasible. I’m involved in my community and sit on a number of non-profit boards. I needed help, and I had to decide how much to pay my staff.
To me, it seemed that if I wanted good staff who would stick around and work hard, I should pay a decent hourly wage. I worked 15 to 20 hours per week throughout university — and made more than minimum wage — but still had a hard time making ends meet as a student with loans. I know what it’s like to worry about money — wondering how you’re going to buy groceries, pay your share of the utilities or afford a blazer for a job interview. It’s exhausting and it’s demoralizing.
Saskatchewan has the lowest minimum wage in Canada. In 2017, it was $10.96 per hour. Currently, any minimum-wage increases are tied to inflationary pressures, and since I opened, the minimum wage here has crept up to $11.06. In October it will be $11.32. Saskatchewan is a wonderful place, but we also have high rates of poverty and income disparity.
“I wanted to live my values. Business and ethics aren’t mutually exclusive.”
People told me that paying more than minimum wage was pointless and a sure-fire way to spend too much on payroll. They told me I’d go under within a year. Even some business owners I know who pay more than $15/hour as their starting wage are against raising the minimum wage. However, there are also those who have always quietly paid more than the minimum wage, and have been in business for years.
So I ran the numbers. The financial difference between me paying $10 per hour and paying $13, $14 or $15 – wasn’t staggering. Of course it makes a difference in our profit margin, but it’s not a material difference. I wouldn’t be getting rich off of my staff making $10.96 per hour.
Most importantly, I wanted to live my values. Business and ethics aren’t mutually exclusive. I sell luxury food products. How could I sell $10 pieces of cheese and ask my staff to make $10 per hour?
So, in our first month everyone (myself included) made $13 per hour. The next month we all made $14, and the month after that we bumped up to $15. In the two years we’ve been in business, we’ve grown from me and my first staff person (hi, Rebecca!) to five employees. Our staff work hard, go above and beyond, take initiative and, heck, they spend money back into my business, which is the biggest compliment of all.
In our first year in business, I mentioned our wages a few times to fellow entrepreneurs. People who were opposed to a $15 minimum wage had very emotional reactions to this, as if me paying my staff more money somehow meant they got less. As a consequence, I never championed this issue for fear of hurting my business through some misguided boycott. I was also in my first year of business and I didn’t want to brag if I was going to fail. Much like the other entrepreneurs I know who pay more than the minimum wage, I kept my head down and focused on building my reputation and customer base.
However, as this issue becomes more and more politicized, it’s important to look at real-life examples and not just rhetoric.
I’ve sat through events, forums and meetings where folks have recited that paying $15 an hour is unsustainable and untenable for businesses. I’ve also been told by local economic development authorities that minimum-wage jobs don’t exist in Regina (but they’re still opposed to raising the minimum wage, go figure). Those of us who do pay a living wage need to speak up and help lead the way for others.
I love our community and I love our supportive network of entrepreneurs — but if a business can’t support a one- or two-dollar increase in hourly wages, it may not be sustainable. Everyone knows that a new owner not being able to pay themselves for years isn’t how you run a business. Similarly, if a minimum-wage increase will break a business, it’s time to reevaluate.
Paying my staff $15 per hour isn’t going to solve poverty in my city or kickstart an economic boom, but if more businesses paid their staff better, their employees would have more economic security. We’re only two years in, and things can change in an instant, but I believe that sustainable businesses pay sustainable wages. The better off my staff are, the better off my customers are, and the stronger my business is, the stronger my community will be.
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