The union rep for Educational Assistants (EAs) in Hanover School Division, says rather than considering job cuts, the school board should shift its focus to wage parity.

Geoff Dueck Thiessen, CLAC regional director in Manitoba, made that comment following news from the school board that a lack of funding from the province may cause it to cut some staff positions. Dueck Thiessen is urging the division to shift its attention back to wage parity. 

"I think it's very concerning that we've just started bargaining with Hanover School Division to renew the collective agreement for Educational Assistants," says Dueck Thiessen. "And immediately the school division is talking about job cuts."

Dueck Thiessen would like to see EAs in Hanover School Division receive the same pay as those performing the same work in Winnipeg. He explains that the starting wage for an EA outside of Winnipeg is on average $4 per hour less than the starting wage in Winnipeg. And the top rate for an EA with education and lots of experience is on average between $3 and $5 per hour less outside of Winnipeg. 

Dueck Thiessen says you used to be able to argue that the cost of living was higher in Winnipeg than in rural Manitoba, but he notes the data no longer supports that. For example, he suggests house costs are only slightly less in Steinbach than Winnipeg. On top of that, an EA in Hanover most likely needs to own their own vehicle, as there is no public transit. 

He adds EAs generally work six hours per day and says they do not have a very flexible life during the school year because the students need them, and they have to be at work. Yet, Dueck Thiessen suggests that six hours of work per day is not really enough to earn a full living. Then, he says they are generally laid off during spring break, Christmas break and summer holidays.

"We don't really see that as a sustainable career for folks who are really professionals and really good at their jobs," he adds.

Further to that, he says EAs are paid for student contact time and yet there are days throughout the school year when they do not know if they are coming in, because of inclement weather. 

"If the students aren't there, then sometimes they don't get paid," he says. "And it's very hard to budget when you are actually unsure of the number of school days you are going to be working in a year."

Dueck Thiessen says the union would like to see the income of EAs be more predictable. 

With respect to the importance of EAs, Dueck Thiessen says the needs of students are becoming more complex. He notes most of the hands-on work done with students that have the most complex needs, is done by EAs. 

"They need to be paid enough," he says. "So, what we'd like, is to be not focused on job cuts, we'd love to be focused on how to make sure this job is a sustainable job for people who can do really great work."

Meanwhile, Dueck Thiessen says he is not an expert in the budget process and cannot suggest where the school board should be trimming costs instead of through staff cuts. 

"I wouldn't micromanage for them where they should spend their money, I just think that focusing on effective teams has got to be a high priority," he adds.

Dueck Thiessen says the school division's concern is that the way the province has managed equalization payments is landing them in a net loss, which will lead to staff cuts.

"The irony is that equalization should lead to school divisions being on equal footing when in reality support staff like educational assistants and custodians are paid a lot less outside of Winnipeg than within the city limits," he adds. 

Dueck Thiessen says it is important that the government and the public understand that if equity is the goal to address lagging grade levels, then wage parity needs to be part of the solution. And, he says adequate funding will need to back that up.