Viewpoint: Customer service starts with respect for employees

Gilleen Witkowski–

We took a risk. Instead of using minimum wage or contract workers to outsource our financial risk and legal liabilities, we paid $15 an hour.

In early 2016 I suddenly found myself starting a pet services company together with my fiancé Colin and sister Emma. Funded by a small business loan and even smaller personal savings, it was time to scratch the entrepreneurial itch.

One of the first things we did was flesh out all the numbers. I learned more about cash flow projections and profit margins than I ever thought I would (it’s an ongoing process). What did it tell us? Margins are tight, labour is our biggest expense, and that the best thing to do as a business is reduce expenses. But it didn’t all add up.

Our vision for Walk My Dog Toronto was to use technology to make our work fun, accountable, and safe at the same time – clients would know when exactly we entered and left their home, and could follow their dog walks and visits through GPS-tracked maps and photos.

But we knew that technology needed to go hand-in-hand with solid workplace practices and respect for our employees. Respect comes in a lot of forms but it needs to show up in real dollars too.

It was tempting to consider using contractors, or just pay the minimum wage, then (and currently still) $11.40/hour. We were a new company without venture capital or financial runway and we could have used those cost savings.

But we knew what that $11.40 amount really represented – a pay rate substantially below the bare minimum needed to live with Toronto’s rental market and general cost of living, not to mention the interest loan payments standard for today’s indebted younger workers.

And we knew that there was no way that we could offer truly trustworthy services without an appealing offer to those who would become our professional dog walkers. So we decided to pay what we understood to be (partly thanks to campaigns such as Fight for $15) the minimum living wage.

The minimum wage raise is a challenge to embrace, not avoid. It is a myth that business owners must fear these changes.

The increase in minimum wage will help us compete – those who stay in business must be able to pay it. If we can make it work in our small company, we know that others will too.

Implementing an acceptable minimum wage in our province outweighs concerns around employer affordability or slight raises in consumer prices. It’s the government’s job to make sure everyone has a minimum standard of living. It’s the private sector’s job to compete in a space where we must pay people enough to live.

When changes to minimum wage are passed and we are required to pay more, we will sit down and go over those numbers again. And we will make sure not only that we are still able to pay our employees and stay in business, but that we continue to provide the high level of trustworthy service that our employees make possible.

Gilleen Witkowski is the owner of Walk My Dog Toronto.