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LETTER: Many education workers must rely on second jobs

'I have friends and colleagues who can’t afford their rent, have moved back in with their parents, or rely on loans and food banks to get by,' says YRDSB IT worker, union official
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Re: Letter to the editor, Education workers' union telling half-truths, Sept. 24, 2022.

When schools closed during the first wave of the pandemic and students shifted to online classes, information technology (IT) departments worked overtime.

Many teachers taught from home. Some principals, too, worked remotely. But my IT co-workers showed up to their schools across York Region every day to ensure students had devices and internet access so they could connect with their classmates and keep learning. In a matter of weeks, we were part of the creation of an entire new elementary and secondary virtual school system that thousands of students adopted to continue their education during the height of the pandemic.

We prepared and distributed 20,000 laptops and coordinated data plans for those without reliable internet. We helped teachers to use webcams and trained them to set up online classes. And we worked with anxious parents, answering questions so their technology could run smoothly as we navigated uncharted waters.

IT departments are usually only noticed when things go wrong, when servers crash, or devices don’t work. I’ve spent nearly 20 years in IT services for the York Region District School Board. I’ve never seen anything like the mobilization that happened in the early days of this pandemic – but I’ve seen that same commitment throughout my career.

IT workers share the same drive as our co-workers in schools throughout Ontario. We’re there because we believe in the transformative power of education and we want to serve our communities. That’s why we do it. Whether in a classroom or behind the scenes, I’ve heard many describe working in education is a calling.
But dedication and commitment don’t pay the bills. On average, my 55,000 co-workers and I are paid just $39,000 a year and that’s not sustainable for anyone.

More than half of education workers have second jobs to make ends meet. I have friends and colleagues who can’t afford their rent, have moved back in with their parents, or rely on loans and food banks to get by.

Education workers are early childhood educators who lead play-based learning that helps our youngest thrive; educational assistants who offer one-on-one attention so all students get the supports they need; custodians, tradespeople, and maintenance staff who ensure schools are safe and clean; library workers and language and music instructors who inspire countless students; office and IT staff whose work makes schools run smoothly.

These are important, meaningful jobs. But they’re not fairly compensated or adequately resourced.

The results of years of government cuts have been painful to watch. We have schools in the area that are cleaned only every other day, where one educational assistant is responsible for hundreds of students, where each day on average 180 educational assistant and designated early childhood educator (ECE) positions remained unfilled last year.

Schools can’t recruit workers or keep them and students end up suffering.

That’s why my 55,000 colleagues – all education workers who are members of CUPE’s Ontario School Boards Council of Unions – are currently bargaining for the public good in our negotiations with the provincial government and the Council of Trustees’ Associations (CTA).

For years, the provincial government has bled our schools dry. They’ve cut funding and staff. They’ve limited services. We are going to change that.

Our proposals are reasonable and affordable. More than that, they are necessary for the benefit of our students and the health of our communities.

We want to guarantee services for all students. We want to turn these precarious, underpaid jobs into careers people can stay in. And we want school boards to have the consistent workforce that will allow all kids to succeed.

That’s why we’re asking for a $3.25 wage increase in each year of a three-year contract. That fair raise would help education workers to keep up with high inflation after a decade of government-imposed wage cuts. It would allow many of us survive on one full-time job and would ensure school boards could attract and keep the staff they require to provide the services that students need.

IT workers – like the 6,400 other front-line education workers in York’s public and Catholic schools – want to focus on students, not on fighting with the provincial government to secure resources after so many years of cuts. We got into this line of work to offer our communities the best schools we can. Our students deserve that.

But the Ford government has cut funding for schools by $800 per student over their first four years in power. That’s $1.6 billion missing from schools last year alone. It’s time for them to stop the cuts and we’re bargaining to compel the restoration of some of that funding to make schools better for children, families, and workers.

Education workers have a good proposal to settle on the table. It’s reasonable, necessary and affordable. Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce have the power and resources to accept this proposal. They could and should do that today.

Todd Canning
CUPE Ontario School Boards Council of Unions, education workers’ central bargaining committee