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Patrick Saurette, chair of the board of Restaurants Canada, in seen in his restaurant, the Marc, in Edmonton on Sept. 18, 2018.

Amber Bracken

Alberta now has the highest minimum wage in the country, following a raise today – to $15 an hour – that’s garnering mixed reactions.

When NDP Leader Rachel Notley became premier in May, 2015, Alberta’s minimum wage was among the lowest in Canada, at $10.20 an hour and $9.20 for employees serving liquor. Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was an important election promise.

Starting in October, 2015, there have been four phased-in minimum-wage increases (and the elimination of the liquor server rate), with the final hike from $13.60 to $15 occurring Oct. 1.

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While labour advocates applaud the move, entrepreneurs such as Patrick Saurette, owner and operator of Edmonton restaurant the Marc, say the increase is challenging.

“We really feel that this is a negative for our industry, because of the rate and the pace,” says Mr. Saurette, who also serves as board chair of the national association Restaurants Canada.

Like many Alberta small-business owners, Mr. Saurette notes various increased costs he’s currently contending with; it’s not just minimum wage. There are updated provincial employment standards that affect holiday pay, food inflation and carbon tax surcharges on every food delivery that comes to his restaurant.

In response, the Marc’s menu prices have risen. While there have been no layoffs, Mr. Saurette says that when employees leave, he’s not always filling their positions. “We’re resilient and we will make those adaptations where need be as an industry, but I think we could really use a little bit more time and assistance,” he says.

Mr. Saurette also says that with a $15-an-hour minimum wage, restaurants are looking for more experienced workers.

“Those opportunities for youth are dwindling,” says Mr. Saurette, who got his own start in the hospitality industry at the age of 14. Restaurants Canada has advocated, unsuccessfully, for an entry-level wage for youth employees.

But Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, calls the NDP’s minimum-wage policy “an unqualified success.”

In Calgary, where the aftermath of a two-year recession continues to be felt by some businesses, Zoe Addington with the Calgary Chamber of Commerce says the 47-per-cent increase in three years has come at a time when many small businesses can ill afford it.

Ms. Addington, director of policy and government relations at the Calgary Chamber, says she has heard about a variety of impacts, including employers reducing hours, jobs or incentives such as commissions, adding more basic duties onto senior positions and a reluctance to hire less experienced workers.

“We do think there’s other ways of dealing with this, that putting all these costs on small businesses is not really the most effective way of doing it,” she says. The chamber has recommended expanding the Alberta Family Employment Tax Credit instead.

In the southern Alberta city of Lethbridge, the local chamber asked for the consideration of a regional minimum wage, based on the cost of living, to allow for rural and urban differences.

“Fifteen dollars an hour is more money in the pocket of employees here than it might be in a bigger centre,” says Karla Pyrch, executive director of the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce. “Some of our businesses don’t have the customer base here because we’re a smaller centre, but also there’s not the cost [of living] here as well, so do we need to have as high of a minimum wage?”

Ms. Pyrch says she’s heard overwhelmingly that Lethbridge businesses are supportive of their work force and they want their employees to have a good standard of living. “They just want to make sure that the measures being taken are accomplishing that, and still allowing them to effectively run their businesses,” she says.

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Kevin Kent, a Calgary-based business owner and former chef, is a supporter of Alberta’s minimum-wage increase.

“As a person who worked for years and years at minimum or just barely above minimum wage, I know the struggle,” Mr. Kent says. “I also know that if we pay the people on the bottom a tiny bit more money, they will use that money and it will go straight back into the economy.”

Since he opened his first Knifewear retail store in 2008, specializing in Japanese kitchen knives, he has paid employees above minimum wage. Today, about 40 employees work at retail shops in Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Vancouver, under the brands Knifewear and Kent of Inglewood, a shave shop.

“We’ve always thought that a person working full-time, they shouldn’t have to live in poverty,” he says.

While Mr. Kent won’t disclose his workers’ hourly wage, he says he uses Vibrant Communities Calgary’s living wage calculation – currently at $18.15 an hour – as a baseline for every city except Vancouver.

Employees get other perks, too, including three months' paid vacation after 10 years of employment. This January, an employee will hit that long service milestone for the first time.

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“We assumed that if we paid a living wage, our staff would be happier, more engaged, take care of our customers better and would stick around,” he says. “We wanted to make our retail job a career people can have, and it’s worked out.”

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