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Squeezed by Liberal labour reforms, Ontario employers hope for stability under PCs

Ontario’s planned hike to a $15 minimum wage will likely soon be quashed as Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives get ready to run the country’s most-populous province.

Mr. Ford has promised to keep the minimum mandatory rate at $14 an hour, while allowing subsequent increases at the rate of inflation. He has also said he will eliminate provincial income taxes for those earning the minimum wage.

On top of anxiety over wage hikes, companies said they felt squeezed by outgoing premier Kathleen Wynne’s Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act (Bill 148), which required paid personal-emergency days and paying temporary workers the same amount as full-time employees doing the same job, among other measures.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The mandatory hourly rate increased to $14 from $11.60 in January and was due to climb to $15 next year. The labour policy from the outgoing Liberal government angered businesses across the province who said the pace of the increase – nearly 30 per cent in 15 months – was way too fast.

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Now, many Ontario entrepreneurs say they are relieved to see the end of the Liberal government that they perceived as unfriendly to business.

“It really did put us in a bad position,” Shalini Sheth, who co-owns Surati Sweet Mart food factory in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, said of the minimum-wage hike. “We’re definitely not against people getting a raise, but the speed at which it was implemented was too fast.”

Ms. Sheth said she can allocate the money she was planning to use for the next wage hike for other purposes. “We’re looking at adding more equipment, and in turn adding more people to run that equipment.”

On top of anxiety over wage hikes, companies said they felt squeezed by the Liberals’ Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act (Bill 148), which required paid personal-emergency days and paying temporary workers the same amount as full-time employees doing the same job, among other measures.

“It seemed to come in so fast and it was all done from our perspective for political gain,” said Chris Wilcox, general manager of a chain of Quickie convenience stores in the Ottawa area.

“It was like a steady drip, drip, drip. There was a change to vacation pay, a whole host of things. Individually, I don’t think we objected to many of them. It’s just that they all seemed to come at once and it was just too much to adapt to all at the same time,” he said.

As with many entrepreneurs, Mr. Wilcox isn’t necessarily expecting that much of the legislation in place will be changed, but he’s hoping for some stability. During the campaign, Ford didn’t address many details about Ontario’s labour laws, although he did vow a slight reduction in the provincial small-business tax rate, to 3.2 per cent from 3.5 per cent.

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Mr. Wilcox said he is not so much happy that the Conservatives won, but relieved to avoid the prospects of an NDP government, which he says would have increased regulations and followed through on the Liberals’ minimum-wage hike. “This is an exciting opportunity for us to get back in expansion mode again,” he said, saying he will hold Mr. Ford to his promise of allowing convenience stores to sell beer and wine.

The Liberals’ higher minimum wage was implemented during a period of robust economic growth in Ontario. The province’s jobless rate is the lowest in nearly two decades and wages are starting to rise. But it’s not just the minimum-wage hike that pushed Ontario’s average hourly rate up 4.7 per cent to $27.39 over May of last year. Higher-paid sectors, such as natural resources, saw an increase of 20 per cent and finance was up 6 per cent.

Meanwhile, the average hourly rate in a sector dominated by minimum-wage workers − accommodation and food services − was up by 8.6 per cent to $16.28. Another low-paid sector − retail and wholesale trade − saw the rate increase 7.6 per cent to $21.40.

Although businesses said they had to cut hours and jobs and raise prices to offset higher labour costs, the numbers are not showing a correlation between the minimum-wage increase and job losses.

Accommodation and food services has continued to create positions, adding 6,100 last month, according to the jobs report released by Statistics Canada on Friday. That sector has expanded by 8.5 per cent over May of last year. Employment in retail and wholesale trade has declined by 0.6 per cent over the same period.

Economists say it is too soon to see the effect of the minimum-wage hike on job creation. “It’s way too early to judge that,” said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist with CIBC.

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