Barely getting by

A living wage in Kawartha Lakes is pegged at $20.60 per hour, but these people say there’s no way to live on that, let alone the minimum wage.

By Geoff Coleman

Nikki Judson and her husband Jay Dunn, with their young family. They say expenses are all up and there's no way they would be able to survive on a living wage of $20.60 per hour. Photo: Geoff Coleman.

Late last year, the Ontario Living Wage Network (OLWN) announced their calculations for the amount of money it takes for an hourly wage earner to “cover their basic expenses and participate in their community.”

In our area, the magic number is $20.60 per hour, according to the OLWN.

Basic expenses include things like food, shelter, medical expenses, a contingency fund, a phone and internet, a modest vacation and one continuing education course. The influences of government transfers and taxes are also accounted for. The living wage calculation does not include home ownership, debt repayments, saving for a child’s education, or retirement savings.

Nikki Judson and her husband Jay Dunn say that number is quite frankly “impossible.”

They have two children under the age of three. Both earn more than the living wage, though she is on maternity leave, currently taking home 55 per cent of what she did when working. She says there is no way they could survive if they each earned $20.60 per hour.

Brooke Mahas feels trapped in the gig economy, working as a part-time model (such as in this recent holiday shoot with @inspiredbygriffinphotography) while also developing her own clothing line, and working at a local grocery store.
Stephen McConnell is finding Ontario much more expensive than Alberta, where he previously worked. Photo: Geoff Coleman.

“Cannot be done. Everything has gone up – diapers, clothes, property tax, car insurance, food. Bacon is $8! And there’s no end in sight.”

The couple lives in Galway township and their somewhat remote location makes for a lot of driving. “We drive farther to get groceries. And with limits on the number of garbage bags we can put out for pick up, we end up having to drive our extra garbage to the dump. Formula has gone up and it is scarce. You end up driving all over to get it, and have I mentioned the price of gas? We have never had a vacation unless you count going to Walmart.”

Brooke Mahas would agree with that assessment. The 28-year-old personifies being trapped in the gig economy. At one point the university business school graduate was working five part-time jobs, but she has scaled it back to three now.

While she would prefer to be working in marketing, the expense of living in a city where those jobs are common – say somewhere in Durham Region or Toronto – has deterred her. “Even commuting is too expensive and doesn’t leave time for much of a social life, or to have a side hustle.”

Instead, she holds down a job at a local grocery store, works as a model, and has a fledgling online clothing store. After a romantic relationship ended, she moved in with her parents rather than take on a rent payment by herself of $2,500 for a basement apartment in Bobcaygeon.

“I live paycheque to paycheque and it is starting to have an effect on my mental health. With my university debt I just feel like I’m playing catch up.”

Living wage calculations may be off in reality because they are based, in part, on conditions that have swiftly changed. Some of the information used is from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and from larger centres, the nearest to Kawartha Lakes being Peterborough. There, as of October 2022, one should have been able to rent a two-bedroom apartment for $1,339 – certainly a deal not to be found today.

Another source of information the OLWN uses is the Canadian Rental Housing Index, generated from the Canadian Census individual long-form. Since this includes rental data paid on granny suites, basement apartments and so on, in theory it should be more current. But according to it, in 2021 a Kawartha Lakes two-bedroom would go for $1,300. Again, a deal not to be found.

The two-year lag, compounded by the economic influence of the pandemic, accounts for part of the difference between the stats and what is happening on the ground. But it doesn’t change the fact that in Kawartha Lakes, a living wage – while a vast improvement over Ontario’s $16.55 minimum wage – is still short of what people really need.

Given the minimum wage rate, employers have a significant gap to make up if they want to pay a living wage. The Ontario Living Wage Network certifies employers who have committed to paying its employees a living wage. While there are definitely companies in our area that do pay living wages and more, only one has taken the steps needed to receive the OLWN’s endorsement.

According to Norah McCarthy, president and CEO of Kawartha Credit Union, they sought certification because, “it supports our commitment to be socially responsible and demonstrates that we treat our employees with respect, care, and have their best interests at heart.

Crystal Dayman, executive vice president, adds, “For Kawartha Credit Union, being a living wage employer ensures that our employees are treated equitably and work in safe and fulfilling environments,” and employees feel increased loyalty to the credit union, too.

Craig Pickthorne, communications coordinator for the OLWN, says there are actual cost benefits accrued by paying higher wages. He says employers benefit from greater productivity when an employee is not fatigued from working a second job, and the worker is more likely to remain in the job, reducing recruitment and training costs. He adds that there is a benefit to the wider economy since that extra money is spent in the local economy.

Stephen McConnell, 34, doesn’t believe even the living wage of more than $20 per hour would work for his life, either. He works as a heavy equipment operator with Buckhorn Sand and Gravel just north of Bobcaygeon. After working several years in the oil patch, he returned to the Kawarthas and has found that his dollar does not go as far here as it does in Alberta, mainly because of housing costs.

Fuel for commuting is a big expense too, he admits, “but that’s my choice to drive a pickup.”

He says it takes a lot more than $20.60 an hour for someone to live and enjoy some social activities and not just “work, go home and eat, sleep then wake up and repeat.”

“It is not surprising to see people working under the table to try and make an extra bit of folding money. It usually gets pumped back into the community anyway.”

The Advocate contacted others for this story, interviews that didn’t end up in this article. They asked for anonymity because they had a second job they didn’t want their main employer to know about, or because their entire income came from undeclared cash. However, it should be noted that all earned more than the living wage, but none could see getting by on that amount.

In fact, several other people we spoke to acknowledged that they were only able to make ends meet by taking on a second job, working under the table, or taking in renters off the books, but didn’t want to go on the record for obvious reasons.

The one constant that most of our respondents brought up as a barrier to getting ahead was the high cost of rent. Living wage calculations include an amount for rent, but even employees who were paid at or above a living wage, were frequently unable to afford a place to live.

McConnell can believe that. When he moved back from Alberta, he realized he wouldn’t be able to manage the housing costs once he took a look around at the local rates.

“I live with my parents and contribute to the household. I get by, but throw in an actual $2,500 a month for rent and I’d be concerned.”

Minimum wage, living wage, basic income. What’s the difference?

A minimum wage is the lowest remuneration that employers can legally pay their employees.

A living wage is an estimation of the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs. But there is no legal requirement to be paid by employers.

A basic income is a payment to eligible couples or individuals that ensures a minimum income level, regardless of employment status. It is different than social assistance because a basic income can be given to anyone who meets the income eligibility criterion, and so can be given to someone who may be working but earning below the basic income level, with the goal of preventing poverty.


  1. Wallace says:

    No one to blame for this but the federal government . They keep housing prices high across Canada because they allow too many people in to Canada every year, even though there’s no housing. And they’re not giving provinces enough to build. Soon, corporations will be buying up all available housing, and renting it back to Canadians (this is happening in the USA now. Republicans are presenting a bill to congress to stop hedge fund companies from buying up houses by the thousands). No one, except trillion dollar corporations and the very wealthy will be able to buy a house……. “You will own nothing, and be happy” isn’t just a meme. Its an ideology. (look it up) . Canada has billions to give to other countries, while Canadians live in their parents basements , in their cars and on the streets. Keep voting for Liberals, folks, for more of the same.

  2. Wendy MacKenzie says:

    I am a Permanent Resident of 10 years this year and I am retired but one thing puzzles me. Why does no-one in either Federal or Provincial politics talk about “the working class” – but only this ridiculous cop-out “the middle class and those working hard to join them”? If there were no working class there would be no Canada, period. It’s time politicians recognized them and catered to THEIR needs once in a while!

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