OPINION: Alberta minimum wage boost more of a tip than a triumph

Service industry at the forefront of Alberta minimum wage criticism, but on the backburner for other quality of life improvements

Calgary freelancer writer and server, Autumn Fox, with Alberta premier Rachel Notley. COURTESY AUTUMN FOX

I’m a freelance writer. Some months are great for work, others… crickets.

I knew when I decided to make a career change and go into journalism that I was likely also committing myself to a lifetime of work in the service industry. While every waiter in L.A. might be an actor, I’m convinced every waiter in Calgary is a writer, journalist, PR guru or marketing magician. We’re all just waiting for our big break.

I don’t mind serving. I’m good at it. I meet all kinds of people with all kinds of stories. Some of my best writing came from behind the bar. But if I’m being honest, this wasn’t where I pictured myself – channeling Danny Glover and huffing, “I’m too damn old for this,” as I haul another tray of drinks up to a rooftop patio.

But work is work, and Albertans LOVE the ‘pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps’ mentality, so here I am.

As a minimum wage earner, I AM grateful for the October wage increase. I work a lot of day shifts and I’m lucky if I walk with $20 in tips – so the struggle to keep my head above water IS real. (I mean, I’m so desperate that a clothing company gave me a free pair of pants, people.)

But I think what I would like to see even more than an extra $1.40 an hour would be subsidies for social services that I simply can’t afford without a benefits package – or even the option of an affordable benefits package for service industry workers.

While I’m of the belief that every little bit counts, $15 an hour IS a completely arbitrary number. $15 was the proposed “living wage” when I moved out to Calgary 18 years ago – so it’s not going to move me ahead much now. It’s certainly not enough to start saving. But maybe I can pay my power bill on time this month.

While I’m of the belief that every little bit counts, $15 an hour IS a completely arbitrary number.

What would be helpful is pharmacare. On average, I pay about $200 a month in prescriptions – more now that I’ve got two bum knees to contend with.

Affordable physio would be an enormous relief. I’ve been running your food and drinks for almost 20 years, and it has prematurely deteriorated both knees. I’ll likely need surgery by the time I’m 40. It wouldn’t be hard to prevent this.

Dental care would be smashing – especially because I keep smashing my front teeth on beer bottles. And then my dentist would stop harassing me for my annual check-up. (What are you, Columbia House?!?!)

Vision care would be amazing – my cheap, plastic glasses are scratched beyond repair and I’ve got some pretty advanced squint lines from standing in the sun waiting to take your order. Prescription sunglasses are but a dream on the (very difficult to see) horizon.

Student loan reform would be beyond gratifying – they’re making more off interest than my credit card company at this point.

Rent control would be a big boost – I’d love to have housing security. At one point I was moving annually because I couldn’t afford the constant rent increases. I know I’ll never own my own home, but it’s astonishing how quickly being a renter renders you a second-class citizen.

More access to affordable mental health services would be invaluable. I’ve been on a waiting list since 2014 for a specialized therapy program – my place in line hasn’t moved since. If I’m *lucky* I can get in to see my therapist once a month.

A social services worker to help me navigate the benefits that ARE actually available to me? I’m still waiting on that phone call.

It takes its toll on your self-esteem and mental wellbeing, living like this.

As if servers are actually a secret guild of Svengalis manipulating public policy in our favour – all while making change, pouring pints and manually typing in every single substitution you’ve made on your meal.

And really, at the end of the day, it would just be nice to not hear every single employer tell me what a financial burden I am to their business. It’s demoralizing and dehumanizing.

The reality is, serving staff are on the frontlines. Not only are we keeping you in cold ones while we battle heat, smog and smoke, or work holidays so you can treat your mom to a bottomless mimosa brunch or pound the stairs for every side of ranch you need – we’re also navigating a world where every wage increase, statutory holiday amendment and business tax increase is cause for criticism. As if servers are actually a secret guild of Svengalis manipulating public policy in our favour – all while making change, pouring pints and manually typing in every single substitution you’ve made on your meal.

While the government may have their share of online trolls, we get stuck serving them with a smile when they decide to come out from under their bridges and visit our fine establishments. We’re constantly reminded why a wage increase means we don’t deserve a tip anymore, or how the few benefits we ARE allotted are the ruin of our current economy.

That’s a lot of responsibility for servers. Especially when most of us are leaving work to go to night classes, or to take care of our families or go to our second (or third) job. We’re swamped.

So thank you, Rachel Notley. And thank you, Alberta’s NDP. I know your heart is in the right place. But maybe next time, ask US what would really be beneficial – so we don’t have to spend our lives just scraping by. Because at this point, dignity is priceless.

And a little extra pocket change isn’t going to make up for that.

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