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How minimum-wage workers are spending their pay increase

Many say extra money likely to still just be used to make ends meet

Aliyah Guillemette says she’s worked minimum-wage jobs since she was 16.

Roughly 623,000 Ontarians are starting to see the results of the province's minimum-wage increase as they cash their first paycheques of the year. The raise to $14 per hour from $11.60 took effect on New Year's Day and will bump up again to $15 per hour a year from now.

The Globe and Mail spoke to five minimum-wage workers to see what the extra money will mean for them.

Arshad Bacchus

Mr. Bacchus splits his time between two retail jobs at the Eaton Centre.

Mr. Bacchus works at two retail jobs in the Toronto Eaton Centre and said he splits his time between the gigs for a total of about 40 hours a week. He studied fashion in school and hopes to return to study either marketing or advertising.

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"I've been wanting to go on vacation this year, so it does help," Bacchus said of the raise, which earned him about $180 more in the first two weeks of January than in the same two-week period last year. Still, he doesn't expect a drastic benefit.

"If you look at the big picture, I think [the cost of] everything else is just going to go up with it."

Nathan Hughes-Berry

Mr. Hughes-Berry works at coffee shop Everyday Gourmet.

Originally from Yorkshire, England, Mr. Hughes-Berry has been in Toronto working minimum-wage jobs for the past two years.

He just started a new job at Everyday Gourmet, a coffee shop and roasterie in the St. Lawrence Market. He left his previous barista job in December because his bosses started cutting employees' hours as the start date for the new minimum wage drew closer.

"In the end it wound up not helping, because they were just dropping people's shifts," he said.

At Everyday Gourmet, Mr. Hughes-Berry said he earns $15 an hour, the same rate that will apply across the province this time next year when the last piece of the province's phased increase takes effect.

But because he's only been with his new employer for two weeks, Mr. Hughes-Berry hasn't yet cashed a cheque at his new pay grade.

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The extra money "will just be buying food, to be honest," he says. "I know it's pretty boring, but it will just be helping to cover bills."

Milvia Ruano

Ms. Ruano works as the nutrition program co-ordinator for the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club.

Ms. Ruano came to Canada a decade ago from Cuba with her son, Victor, who is now 15. Her 7-year-old daughter Michelle was born here.

A Canadian citizen for the past three years, Ms. Ruano earns minimum wage working as the nutrition program co-ordinator for the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club.

Before the minimum-wage increase took effect Jan. 1, Ms. Ruano was earning $13 an hour. The extra dollar per hour will help, she says, but with all the expenses of being a single mother, she will still have to budget extremely carefully to cover her family's living expenses.

"My main concern is always rent. I live in a housing co-op but I pay market rent," she says of her family's Regent Park apartment. "I have to budget extremely carefully. I survive on subsidies – the Canada Child Benefit, the GST rebate payments."

"I am always aware of when I am getting those payments," Ms. Ruano said.

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Cindy Lam

Ms. Lam works at a Toronto eye-glasses retailer.

Ms. Lam triple-majored in her undergrad, studying physics, social work and anthropology, but works full time at minimum wage for an eye-glasses retailer in downtown Toronto.

"I got into law school at the University of Toronto, but it's like $28,000 a year. Based on my income, I might have to just do a masters of public and immigrant health and come back for the law degree later," she says.

Like many, she's looking forward to cashing her first fatter paycheque. She plans to put some of it toward her savings and some toward fun.

"I'm probably going to spend it on going out and eating all the time, because I love it," she said.

"The cost of living still goes up," she said. "I like that everyone is making more, but we're still not making a living wage."

Aliyah Guillemette

Ms. Guillemette works weekends at two retailers.

For Ms. Guillemette, the bump in the minimum wage accounts for only about $52 every two weeks. She's in school right now and works weekends at two different retailers – one large, the other a small, independent store on Queen Street East.

Like Mr. Hughes-Berry, she left her last job because her employer started to cut hours after the minimum-wage increases were announced.

"They reduced my position to seasonal work even though I was hired as permanent staff," she said. "My view is that any company who is only paying minimum wage would pay you less if they could," she said.

Ms. Guillemette said she's worked minimum-wage jobs since she was 16, starting out serving in the restaurant business before moving on to retail.

She said that she would likely use her – admittedly smaller – windfall to help winnow her school debt.

"Especially as a student, it will probably end up being spent on coffee or going out after class with friends to numb the reality that I'm going to be continuously broke and depending on my family until school ends, and even then probably back in a minimum-wage job full time," she said.

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