Education Support Workers Fight to Help Kids and Earn a Living Wage

Attention Media!  Here’s a great photo op! 

I visited a robust and rocking picket line on the sidewalk in front of the Tim Hortons in Spryfield around noon on Wednesday.  Though it was bitterly cold – for May – and raining, more than 30 women educators picketed with signs and whistles to demand living wages from the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE).  This was the sixth day of the school employees’ strike, and the mood was decidedly upbeat and brash.  

1800 education support workers, members of CUPE Local 5047 in Halifax Regional Centre for Education, voted to reject a tentative settlement negotiated by their union and have hit the bricks.

A few minutes after 12 noon we were joined by at least 10 high schoolers – mainly children and neighbours of the strikers who came to lend support on their lunch hour. 

Nominal pay for ECEs same as in 1984

Ruth Harlow is an ECE (Early Childhood Educator) who has been working with four year old pre-primary students at a public school in Halifax for a year and a half.  About the provincial government, Harlow says, “They’re not respecting us.  Tim Houston [the premier] says he does but doesn’t. In 2017 he said inclusion was important but there is not proper support in the classrooms.”  Ruth says wages must at least keep up with inflation, “but it’s nowhere close.  It’s wage poverty.” 

Ruth Harlow, with her sign and her umbrella

Ruth’s not kidding.  Most of the ECEs and Education Program Assistants (EPAs), picketing had to have two or three jobs just to make ends meet.  Valerie Rafuse, who graduated with her ECE diploma in 1984, said someone graduating today makes the same pay she did when she first graduated.  And that’s nominal pay. With inflation, real pay has declined. Valerie is a single mother whose second job is at Family SOS, where she works as a casual after-school support worker three days a week.  In addition she has to have a rent subsidy of just under $400 a month just to get by.  “I shouldn’t have to do this,” she told me.  

“If I call in sick, we’re short-staffed,” Valerie said. “There are no limits on special needs kids. We have a staff ratio of one to ten kids.  This year we have six kids on the ‘spectrum’, with three staff.”

From top left on the picket line: Mother and son; picketer with sign and umbrella; Two picketers cross Herring Cove Rd; Rana Zaman and strikers (photo credits: Judy Haiven). Final photo of group of education workers on strike (credit: CUPE Nova Scotia).

EPA jobs are typically 80% — not full-time

As I gratefully took a seat in a canvas deck chair on the grassy knoll, a number of ECEs and EPAs came over to tell me what their lives are like.  EPAs often care for a special needs child one-on-one all the school day; care  could include academic coaching, toileting, helping with eating and food at lunch, assisting them getting off and on the school bus, and administering some medications.  Sundus has been working as an EPA for a year in an elementary school with kids up to Grade 5.  “My wages are $1400 a month – after taxes.  I’m really enjoying working with kids, but we don’t get a living wage! The employer has no plans to call us back to work and they refuse to meet since we are on strike.”

The HRCE schedules most EPAs for an 80% job rather than a full-time one.  While full-time work pays  $32,000 – $35,000 per year, 80% of that means many EPAs earn just over $26,000 gross a year.  That works out to just over $2100 to $2800 a month.  This is according to the wage scales in their four-year-old Collective Agreement with CUPE, the education workers’ union. Deduct the payroll taxes such as income tax, Canada Pension contributions and premiums for Employment Insurance as well as sick pay insurance, and the $2100 tumbles.  As EPA Carrie Wipp said about the current, rejected, offer “The pay offer is not matching inflation – after 3 years.”

ECEs and EPAs don’t earn a living wage

The CCPA (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) assesses the living wage for people who live and work in Halifax in 2022 was $23.50 an hour — that means two working adults in a household with two children need to each earn at least $23.50 an hour to have a decent quality of life.  Inflation in NS, from June 2021 to June 2022 was 9.3%, the highest it has been since July 1982.  Of course, this year’s rampant inflation will again increase the living wage.  

As it stands now, most EPAs earn just over $15 an hour– $8.24 below the living wage.  For those  EPAs and ECEs earning $2800 gross pay a month, it works out to just over $20.40 an hour — $2.90 less than the living wage. 

Last time around, the education workers settled for a raise in pay of 0%, 0%, 1% and 1.5% each year– which was the pay increase government workers were all saddled with.

TC Salomon is the picket captain. “This is my first strike,” she told me.  TC is an EPA. “It’s horrible.  We need better wages; my paycheque every two weeks is $668 – after taxes.”  

How does she even pay her rent, and pay for groceries? “I have a spouse, but the majority of us are single parents.  We live in subsidized housing, go to food banks and rely on the kindness of others,” said TC. “Most of us grab food from the school’s breakfast club, a granola bar and some fruit.” 

Kelly Dodge works two jobs.  After working her 80% shift at as an EPA at one school, she goes to another location to work in the after school Excel program.  “I put in 10 hours a day, then I go home.  Both jobs together net me $1100 after taxes, every two weeks.” 

Children’s needs and their right to go to school

Nabila has been an EPA in central Spryfield for two years said the warning by school authorities to keep special needs children at home flies in the face of their human rights.  “All our kids are at home; they have the right to come to school, but what right have the schools to tell parents to keep their children at home?  The families have been told to stay at home – so they miss school. Where’s the inclusion in that?”

Heather Langley and her daughter Lucy, who attends Gr. 5 at Burton Ettinger Elementary School in the Fairview-Clayton Park area of Halifax (credit: Skye Bryden-Blom/Global News) reports today that the NS Dept of Education is soliciting replacement workers (scabs) from Ottawa-based MaxSys Staffing and Consulting. Jobs are advertised, and the Dept of Education refuses to say what they are paying MaxSys — saying it’s none of our business. I can’t remember the last time a struck public sector employer brought in scabs.

“We can’t ever turn our backs on a child in this province… It’s time for the government to put their money where their mouth is.” 

not-yet-Premier Tim Houston, on Facebook, Mar. 26, 2018

TC, the picket captain, tapped on her cell phone.  She showed me a quotation from then-Tory leader Tim Houston, in 2018, before he became Premier. Here it is:  

“We can’t ever turn our backs on a child in the province… Premier McNeil and [opposition leader] Churchill have both said they strongly support investing in inclusive education reform in Nova Scotia.  It’s time for the government to put their money where their mouth is.” 

Tim Houston, Conservative Party Leader, Mar. 26, 2018 from Facebook.

Now Houston is the Premier – and essential, life-enhancing education for many disabled or special needs’ children is on the line.  What is the government going to do to honour its five year old commitment?

My thanks go to community leader Rana Zaman who introduced me to workers on this picket line. 

Featured image: Three education workers on the picket line, in Spryfield, May 18, 2023 (credit: Judy Haiven)

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