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Alberta used to have the highest minimum wage in the country. Now it’s the second lowest

When Alberta hiked the province’s minimum wage to $15 an hour in the fall of 2018, it was the highest rate in the country.

But nearly six years and a pandemic later, the minimum wage hasn’t budged — even as Albertans face the highest inflation rate in Canada.

Most provinces and territories are increasing their minimum wage this year, and those that aren’t just raised theirs in 2023.

That means one of Canada’s wealthiest provinces is falling behind. Alberta now has the second-lowest minimum wage in the country. Saskatchewan remains at the bottom, at $14 an hour.

Meaghon Reid, executive director of poverty reduction organization Vibrant Communities Calgary, said it’s a far cry from Calgary’s living wage, which sits at $23.70 and is calculated by the Alberta Living Wage Network.

“Every year that we don’t raise the minimum wage, the situation is getting more dire for people who are on that number,” Reid said. 

“We know that because people who are making minimum wage aren’t able to make ends meet, they’re having to make trade-offs in terms of things like medication and food particularly. That’s what we’re hearing the most.”

Meaghon Reid with Vibrant Communities Calgary says their community advisory team flagged rising food costs as an urgent issue during the summer.
Meaghon Reid with Vibrant Communities Calgary says Alberta’s stagnant minimum wage is a far cry from Calgary’s living wage. (Claudia T Photography)

Reid said she’s been watching how other provinces have adjusted their wages to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

For example, Ontario’s minimum wage is adjusting to inflation to $17.20 in October, while British Columbia’s is increasing to $17.40 in June based on the consumer price index. The federal minimum wage rose to $17.30 on April 1.

Other provinces aren’t being hit as hard by rising costs. Alberta’s inflation rate rose to 4.2 per cent in February — higher than the national average at 2.8 per cent.

It has advocates and Alberta’s lowest income earners wondering why the Alberta government isn’t doing more to help during these unprecedented times, when other provinces are.

‘Trapped in a cycle’

University of Calgary student Cliodhna Britner is one of the 126,000 Albertans making minimum wage. While she tries to pick up as many hours as she can as a hostess, she said $15 an hour only goes so far.

“I literally can’t afford to go out or treat myself. So it does take a hit mentally,” said Britner, 19.

She said her future feels bleak, and she doesn’t know how she’ll ever be able to afford her own home.

“It’s really tiring. And you do feel like you’re trapped in a cycle that you really can’t get out of, or you don’t know how to get out of.”

Meanwhile, 23-year-old Anand Unnithan said costs used to be manageable with a part-time, fast-food job, but that’s no longer the case. He had to pick up a second part-time job to help his parents pay the bills.

A young man holding a fruit cup in front of a food bank
Anand Unnithan, 21, is a student at SAIT who works two part-time jobs to help his family pay the bills. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Unnithan said he has even reached out to financial aid at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) to know what options are available if it comes to that.

“The government should look into increasing the minimum wage, definitely,” said Unnithan.

It isn’t just students or young people struggling with rising costs. Alberta’s most recent minimum wage profile — from 2020 — shows that 73 per cent of minimum wage earners were not teenagers, and 41 per cent had children.

Preventing economic impacts

In a statement to CBC News, Alberta’s ministry of jobs, economy and trade says it understands the inflationary pressures many Albertans are facing right now.

“We also recognize the significant impacts of potential changes to the minimum wage, including to workers, small businesses and costs that are ultimately flowed through to all Albertans,” said press secretary Josh Aldrich.

Mike Holden, chief economist with the Business Council of Alberta, says there are ways to prevent impacts to the economy — it all depends on how the changes are implemented.

“You would need to signal the change well in advance and have it not be a surprise. And I think you would want to avoid really large jumps,” said Holden.

“Giving businesses time to plan for it and giving them time to adapt to small increases, and potentially small and steady increases, would be a much smoother way. Otherwise, you get a really jarring transition.”

Mike Holden, Business Council of Alberta
Mike Holden, chief economist and vice-president of policy at the Business Council of Alberta, says calls for an increased minimum wage are understandable as the cost of living skyrockets. (Submitted by the Business Council of Alberta)

Holden said the timing of a potential increase is also important. He said Alberta is in a bit of a weak economic spot right now that’s being hidden by large population growth.

“If you create more inflation, then you’re just perpetuating the problem you’re trying to solve. So what’s more important is being incremental about taking steps like that.”

Charles St-Arnaud, chief economist at Alberta Central, said since the percentage of Albertans earning minimum wage is relatively small, raising the wage wouldn’t be too detrimental to the economy. But it could also push wages higher for workers who are currently earning just slightly above $15 an hour.

He said while Alberta does have the highest median income in Canada, the gap between other provinces is closing.

“When average wages in Alberta are converging with the rest of the country, it kind of makes sense that we should see minimum wage converging to the average,” said St-Arnaud.

The province said it’s constantly evaluating Alberta’s minimum wage calculation.

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