By Tom Collins
LOMBARDY — Increase product prices, cut jobs, cut back on employee hours and deal with the extra stress. That’s what farmers who hire are facing as they deal with the province’s minimum wage increase.
Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne announced in 2017 that the provincial minimum wage would rise from $11.40 an hour to $14 an hour on Jan. 1, 2018, a 23 per cent increase. The minimum wage was supposed to rise to $15 an hour in January, 2019, but the Ford government announced in late September that minimum wage would stay at $14 an hour.
That’s great news for Shannon Miller, of Miller’s Berry Farm at Lombardy near Perth. This past summer, she had to deal with the wage increase by hiring fewer employees, hiring them for shorter contracts, reducing work hours and reducing her business hours.
“The income isn’t there to cover the increased expense,” she said.
But she and husband Robert worked more hours. The couple had many discussions throughout the summer wondering if they should stop growing fruits and vegetables and switch to cash crops.
“It certainly made us stop and evaluate whether we liked this enough to keep doing it,” she said. “Not to have that added burden (of a $15 per hour minimum wage) looming over us will definitely be a positive thing.”
Some farmers say it wasn’t the increase that bothered them, but how quickly their costs went up.
Mel Foster, of Foster’s Farm at North Gower, north of Kemptville, said he can’t hire fewer employees even though labour is his biggest cost. Instead, he had to raise the price of sweet corn and other vegetables.
“If we hire fewer employees, we can’t open stands because we need a minimum of one, sometimes two people, at a stand,” he said. “If we hire fewer people to harvest, we can’t open the stands because we don’t have the products.”
Ian McGregor, of McGregor’s Produce at Braeside, said his family farm has also had to increase prices and reduce hours to pay $14 per hour. The farm hired 25 locals and 24 Jamaicans this year.
“You cut back an hour here, or a day there, it makes a bunch of difference when you’re selling at roadside stands,” he said. “In small business, you can’t absorb all that cost in one year and expect things to stay the same. It’s just not going to happen.”
However, he said some jobs, such as weeding, are not getting done as much as they were before. “You prioritize a lot more,” he said.
Jordan McKay, of Willowtree Farm at Port Perry, said the minimum wage increase created a new challenge. Some workers were earning more than minimum wage and saw their wages increase to $14 an hour. But instead of seeing this as a raise, they now say they are now only earning minimum wage.
To absorb the increased cost of wages, the farm raised prices on some of the items sold at its on-farm store. McKay is also more selective about who he hires.
“We can’t hire high school students,” he explained. “At $14 an hour, you don’t take on an employee that may or may not work out in a few months. You have to be particular about the team you put together. Margins are tight.”