Homeless in Vancouver: New Year’s Day on Minimum Wage Avenue

This New Year’s Day I thought that the part of West Broadway Avenue that cuts through the Fairview neighbourhood had a weirdly post-apocalyptic look about it.

Against the backdrop of lighter-than-normal vehicular traffic, people, individually and in small groups, could be seen milling about aimlessly along West Broadway, walking past block-after-block of shuttered shops. They often appeared a bit confused or dazed. Every so often they stopped to look in the window of a closed restaurant or coffee shop. Less often they found one that was actually open.

It was as if a widespread power outage had occurred, or something like a typhoon had been forecast to hit at any moment.

In fact, it was just business (or the lack thereof) as usual on New Year’s Day.

A bad way to start a new year if you ask me

Almost everything closes on Christmas Day; it’s traditional to spend the day with friends and family.

The closing of stores on New Year’s Day is a trend rather than a tradition. It seems to me that more businesses along the Fairview stretch of West Broadway were closed this year than last and some that planned to be open this New Year’s Day changed their mind at the last moment.

As for why—allowing that banks and government facilities close on the slightest pretext and that perhaps some employers have trouble attracting staff to work the day after the evening so many people spend getting drunk—I think that opening on New Year’s Day is increasingly seen as a money-losing proposition.

Store owners won’t open on New Year’s Day because they stand to make less than the cost of the wages they would have to pay their employees.

This New Year’s Day I loitered all along 10 blocks of West Broadway Avenue in order to photograph a whole list of things. In the process I saw plenty of people walking around between Cambie and South Granville Street but relatively few shops open. Why would these people be walking around on a shopping street if they didn’t want to shop?

From the way many of them stopped to look in certain windows, I think they at least wanted to get a coffee or a bite to eat.

I noticed several people pause at the door of the Waves Coffee House on the corner of Spruce Street in the 1000 block of West Broadway. Last year this business was open on both Christmas and New Year’s Day, but this year it closed both days. In fact, nothing on either side of that block, including other coffee shops and restaurants, appeared to be open.

You might expect that all the newish condos along that part of West Broadway, backed by an entire dense neighbourhood of apartment buildings, would provide plenty of customers to support one or two good coffee houses any time they wanted to be open. You would have been right five years ago but not today.

I didn’t get down to the West End or West Boulevard on January 1 so I can’t say if this apparent ongoing decline in New Year’s Day consumerism is unique to the Fairview portion of West Broadway Avenue.

The tipping point before an economic downturn

I wish I knew how to encourage more of these little businesses to open up again on New Year’s Day, not to mention on Sundays, Mondays, or before 10 a.m.

As a homeless person, I need restaurants and retail stores to be open but beyond that I think it sends a bad signal to visitors to see so many closed shops—like we’re going through a recession or something.

What if we started a tradition of tipping especially generously on New Year’s Day?

This would be good for the staff but I can’t see how it would encourage the owners of restaurants and coffee shops to open on New Year’s Day, unless the gratuities were so phenomenal that the employees could share their tips with their boss or work the day for nothing but tips.

Neither seems likely or practical.

Hopefully low-paid servers already experience a big boost in their tips between Christmas and New Year's—they certainly deserve it and then some.

Perhaps the better idea, paradoxical as it sounds, might be to simply pay retail and service workers higher wages.

It seems like a recipe for economic stagnation to pay so many people such low wages that they can barely afford to shop in the sorts of stores they work for, yet this is clearly one of the practices that current neoliberal economic policy encourages.

When proponents of a living wage remind us that even a rapacious bastard like Henry Ford felt compelled to pay his workers enough so they could afford to buy the cars they built, neoliberals simply say that wasn’t why he did it.

The high cost of low wages

The retail/wholesale and food services sectors employ a very large number of Canadians (at least 1.84 million) and small businesses of 1 to 99 employees account for over 69 percent of all employment in Canada.

We’re talking a lot of low-paying jobs but it’s hard to pin down how many and how low-paying.

Back in 2008 (admittedly seven years ago), Statistics Canada apparently published numbers showing that some 346,100 B.C. workers earned less than $12 an hour: almost one in five of all the employees in the province.

The earliest Statistics Canada figures I can find on the subject actually seem to show that almost no one in B.C. actually works for minimum wage: a mere 2.3 percent in 2009.

Also according to Statistics Canada, the lowest average hourly wage in B.C. in 2014 was $18.25.

Of course, this is from a government that believes it can eliminate poverty by simply refusing to have an official definition.

I still think that most of the retail clerk and point-of-service employees I see along West Broadway are being paid little better than minimum wage.

Various sources, including the Globe and Mail, peg a Starbucks barista job as paying minimum wage with a benefits package if you work more than 20 hours a week. The Waves Coffee House chain also lists a barista job as starting at minimum wage.

How many of the servers in the restaurants along West Broadway are even getting $10.25 per hour? My understanding is that restaurants that have a liquor license can legally pay a minimum wage of $9 per hour.

Average rent outside the city centre of Vancouver is about $1,025.75 or $12,309 a year, or fully 68.3 percent of a full time $10.25 minimum wage job in B.C., which theTyee calculates as $18,000—$5,500 below the Canada-wide low income cut-off for large cities.

According to the Tyee calculation, I can still earn more money collecting returnable beverage containers than working full-time for B.C.’s minimum wage.

The Tyee calculates that a living hourly wage in Metro Vancouver would be $19.62.

How many of the employees working along the Fairview stretch of West Broadway Avenue make that much per hour?

How many of them can afford to shop in the stores they work for?

Just how many espresso beverages can a person afford to drink on a barista’s wages?

How do you grow a consumer economy by holding down wages and effectively shrinking the number of consumers?

Maybe the better question isn’t why stores are closing on New Year’s Day but how it is that stores manage to stay open for as many days of the year as they do.

Comments (1) Add New Comment
The way
we grow the economy these days is to have a growing unregulated criminal underground consisting of participants making large amounts of money greatly exceeding the minimum wage
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