Advocate for disabled says minium wage hike a concern

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Alberta’s rising minimum wage is making it more difficult for people with disabilities to find jobs, says a member of an agency working with special needs people.

Brad Fowler, Employment and day services manager with the Foothills Advocacy in Motion (AIM) Society, said it’s a challenge to find work for people with disabilities and he worries it will be more difficult with a higher minimum wage.

“That’s certainly my concern,” he said. “I know in talking with other managers that they are feeling an impact in different communities as well. We have a branch in Strathmore and they have felt the impact as well.”

Alberta’s minimum wage rose to $12.20 per hour in October and the NDP government has committed to further increasing minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2018.

Fowler said some employers AIM works with have had to lay off workers because they can’t afford to keep them on. He said most of the cutbacks and layoffs affect people hired for low-skilled, minimum-wage positions, such as janitorial work that businesses owners are choosing to take on themselves to save labour costs.

“They’re looking at their budgets and they have to cut somewhere,” said Fowler. “That’s just one area that they can cut and do the custodial themselves and we’re losing those positions.”

He said AIM has between 25 and 30 people working in jobs in the community. Some are hired directly by the employer and in other cases employers hire AIM to provide services such as recycling collection. Fowler said about one-quarter of them are in positions he said could be impacted by the minimum wage increase. He fears more could be impacted as the minimum wage rises to $15 per hour.

Those working full-time or more frequent part-time positions over for several days a week are more secure, he added.

Fowler said it’s not his intention by speaking out to criticize employers or the minimum wage increase. The minimum wage is necessary, he said, and he understands businesses have to make difficult decisions.

“I’m totally on board with the increase,” he said. “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not at all. I think it’s wonderful and I think it’s necessary. I just think it makes it more difficult for the privately-owned businesses, the mom-and-pop-type businesses.”

Fowler said employers are concerned themselves and don’t want to have to cut hours or lay off AIM staff.

He said he typically sits down with the employers to see if there are any alternatives to keep AIM clients working. Meanwhile, AIM will continue on to help its clients get jobs, said Fowler.

“We have some wonderful employment opportunities in this time and the employers, they love the staff that they’ve hired and the individuals are doing great,” he said.

Dale Attrill, manager of Okotoks Bible for Missions, said they have several AIM clients on the store’s volunteer roster and they’re all great workers.

Attrill said AIM clients working at the Okotoks thrift store do a wide range of tasks from sorting donations and checking their condition, to pricing materials and stocking the store – all the same tasks any able-bodied person can do.

“They do the same jobs as anybody else does, really,” he said. “We have a lot of people who hang clothes and price clothes and they’re part of that.”

In a prepared statement, Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray said the Province is committed to raising Alberta’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2018 because everyone deserves to be able to work and live in dignity.

“Employment provides Albertans with disabilities the opportunity to earn an income, learn skills, build relationships, demonstrate abilities, develop self-confidence and feel a greater sense of belonging in our communities,” she said

Highwood MLA Wayne Anderson said the problems raised by Fowler are a consequence of the higher minimum wage.

“There is a ripple effect and this is one of the ripple effects,” he said.

Anderson said it is already tough for disabled people to get employment and the minimum wage increase won’t make it any easier.

“If other people are being laid off, these people might potentially be the first to be laid off because of their levels of productivity or because there’s so many other people looking for similar jobs because the market has become saturated,” he said.

Anderson suggested the Province take steps to help charities to minimize the impact of the minimum-wage increase, such as by exempting them from the carbon tax.

“At least they’ll be able to absorb some of that and maybe they can share some of that with the businesses,” he said.

Minister Gray’s office outlined several initiatives and programs with Alberta Human Services it says are already in place to support disabled workers, including $3.7 million for the Disability Related Employment Supports (DRES), which provides services on an individual level, including include job search, education and workplace supports such as sign-language interpreters and workplace modifications and the Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) program, supported 2,873 PDD clients in 2014-’15, of which 1,710 obtained and/or maintained employment.

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