Frustrations among support staff, who say they were underpaid and overworked before the pandemic added even more responsibilities to their plates, are growing in Manitoba’s largest school division.
A walkout is on the table amid tense contract negotiations between the Winnipeg School Division and the union that represents teacher aides, interpreters, clerical staff and other support workers in the city’s schools.
“That’s how we feel: invisible. But if we’re not there, maybe they’ll notice that we actually exist and do a lot more than we’re credited or paid for,” said said a member of the Winnipeg Non-Teaching Employees Association.
The educational assistant, who addressed the Free press on condition of anonymity, said she and her peers were “absolutely fed up.”
She was among 330 employees who received layoff notices in the spring of 2020, when schools closed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a return to school last fall, she said EAs were overwhelmed with new duties related to public health orders and forced to take on more work due to an increase in absences. All the while, she said, they felt “undervalued and disrespected.”
The data obtained by the Free press through Freedom of Information requests show that a higher percentage of EAs quit their jobs in the last year than teachers.
In the last academic year unaffected by the pandemic, 140 EAs took time off from work and 21 resigned from WSD. Last year, those numbers increased by 24% and 119%, respectively. Support staff retirements also increased by 5%.
Teachers’ leave, by comparison, increased by 7% during this period. Retirements increased by 8%. And the number of educators quitting their jobs has actually dropped, with three fewer quits recorded in 2020-21 compared to 2018-19.
EA wasn’t surprised by the numbers: “We had to do a lot more and it’s not like it was noticed,” she said.
The reality that support staff faced last year included missing breaks as no cover was available due to staff shortages and the inability to properly distance themselves as they often have to sit next to the children to solve school and behavioral problems.
When public health orders imposed a physical distance of two meters between students, some classes were divided into two or more rooms, with the teacher moving between the two. Support staff have been deployed to supervise and, at times, deliver lessons.
“EAs aren’t supposed to be in a classroom for more than half an hour without a teacher. All of a sudden, it’s out the window,” EA said, adding that she and her colleagues became the only in-person support for the children of essential workers when teachers were sent home to do distance learning in the third wave last spring.
Another support staff member echoed this experience. “We were basically teachers, we weren’t getting teachers’ salaries,” the EA substitute said.
The division EAs start at $16.72 per hour. Their peers at River East Transcona earn $18.96 and at Pembina Trails the base fare is $20.17.
Last week, WANTE members were asked which action they would prefer: work-to-rule, rotating strike or general walkout. A formal vote on a labor action mandate will take place in the coming weeks.
“We are still negotiating to have a fair contract,” said Carla Paul, president of WANTE.
In an email Friday, division spokeswoman Radean Carter said WSD is not commenting on those negotiations.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press educational journalist comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
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