Frustrations among support staff, who say they were underpaid and overworked before the pandemic added even more responsibility to their plates, are mounting 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 educational assistants, interpreters, clerical staff and other support workers in city schools.
"That’s what we feel like: invisible. But if we’re not there, maybe then they’ll notice that we actually exist and we actually do a lot more than we get credit for or get paid for," said one a member of the Winnipeg Association of Non-Teaching Employees.
The educational assistant, who spoke to the Free Press on the condition of anonymity, said she and her peers are "absolutely fed up."
She was among the 330 employees who received a layoff notice in spring 2020, when schools shuttered at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Upon a return to school last fall, she said EAs were overwhelmed by new duties tied to public-health orders and forced to take on more work because of a rise in absences. All the while, she said, they felt "underappreciated and disrespected."
Data obtained by the Free Press through freedom of information requests show a higher percentage of EAs left their jobs last year than teachers.
During the last academic year unaffected by the pandemic, 140 EAs took a leave from work and 21 resigned from WSD. Last year, those figures increased, by 24 per cent and 119 per cent, respectively. Retirements among support staff were also up five per cent.
Teacher leaves, by comparison, rose seven per cent during that time. Retirements increased eight per cent. And the number of educators who quit their jobs actually dropped, with three fewer resignations recorded in 2020-21 versus 2018-19.
The EA was not surprised by the figures: "There's a lot more that we had to take on and it’s not like that was noticed," she said.
The reality support staff faced last year included missing breaks because no coverage was available due to staffing shortages and being unable to properly distance because they often have to sit beside children to work through academic and behavioural challenges.
When public-health orders required physical distancing of two metres between pupils, some classes were split into two or more rooms, with the teacher travelling between. Support staff were deployed to supervise and at times, carry out lessons.
"EAs are not supposed to be in a classroom for more than half an hour without a teacher. All of a sudden, that’s out the window," said the EA, adding she and her colleagues became the only in-person support for children of essential workers when teachers were sent home to do remote instruction during the third wave last spring.
Another support staffer echoed that experience. "We were basically teachers, not getting teacher wages," said the substitute EA.
EAs in the division start at $16.72 per hour. Their peers in River East Transcona make $18.96 and in Pembina Trails, the base rate is $20.17.
Last week, WANTE members were polled on what job action they would prefer: work-to-rule, a rotating strike or a general walkout. An official vote on a job-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 does not comment on such negotiations.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.