Credit union earns Living Wage certification

Integris Credit Union became the city's first business to be certified as a Living Wage Employer under provincially recognized standards. But first they had to figure out what that number was for this region.

Living wage is an anti-poverty standard for a wage and benefits package that allows the employee to exist in "bare bones" but livable conditions in that area. The province has minimum wage rules already, but that fails to reflect the fluctuations in cost of living from one area to another. For example the cost of housing is at a peak in places like Vancouver, but the cost of food, clothing and transportation is higher the farther away one lives from a major centre. The living wage calculation is made for each region, to recognize its unique realities.

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No one had ever done those calculations for the Prince George, Quesnel, Vanderhoof and Fort St. James region. Integris Credit Union took it upon themselves to do that work and then to live up to the standards it revealed.

"We are on the leading edge of this, for this region," said Integris's president and CEO David Bird.

"Integris has become the first credit union outside of the Lower Mainland-Fraser Valley to be certified as a Living Wage Employer," said Catherine Ludgate, member of the Employer Advisory Committee for the Living Wage For Families Campaign (she is also a manager with Lower Mainland credit union Vancity).

"(Developing) the actual living wage calculation for North Central BC shows terrific leadership on the part of Integris and is another clear indication of how credit unions are addressing poverty in their communities while enabling others to do the same."

For the record, the 2015 living wage level for this region is $16.82 per hour, but the lead analyst stressed that this is not just a straight cash-for-service amount, it is the combined amount of wages and benefits that an employer and employee might agree to.

"That means you only have to pay your employees another couple of dollars above the minimum hourly wage to meet this standard, in Prince George," said Cori Ramsay, the Integris employee given the workday schedule space to crunch the numbers.

That involved researching the region's basic food costs, housing costs, utility rates, transportation costs, clothing prices and other index categories of living life.

"It took about five months," said Ramsay. "A lot of that time was gathering the information and doing the analysis of these costs. After that, the certification took relatively little time. It was more than 100 emails and a whole lot of phone calls (with Living Wage For Families Campaign personnel)."

There is a lot of business sense in local companies getting this certification, now that the designation exists. Ramsay said the living wage stamp was a coveted signal to employees that you take their living conditions seriously.

It reduces the amount of employee turnover - always a big cost to a small business owner, especially, and at a time when the local employee pool is shallow - and it increases the amount of employee motivation, which usually results in more income for the business because customers and clients get better service.

"It gives you a pretty important kind of bragging rights," said Ramsay. "And when your employees aren't stressed out at work, and always looking for a job that'll pay them better, it takes a lot of negative pressure off your business's day to day operations."

Bird said Integris had to up some ante for some of their employees in order to meet the threshold, but he pointed out that in order to get that designation, the company had to do more than just pay up for their employees.

The $16.82 level also had to apply to their direct service contractors as well, like the cleaning service company.

"We have to take care of our people; we have to take care of our community," said Bird. "We have established what the line is, we have crossed that line ourselves so we know how that looks, we can talk other businesses through the process. Now we have to take this to the rest of the community and get more businesses on board, so it spreads in the community."

He was beaming with pride in Ramsay's work, especially.

"She displayed remarkable personal initiative," he said. "Cori led this project passionately. This is a great example of how one person can make a difference for many."

He vowed to keep the annual number crunching process underway so each year would have a current living wage number.

His invitation was also extended for any Prince George business or agency to make contact and learn how to meet the standard themselves. A good place to start is at livingwageforfamilies.ca.

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