U of R sessionals working for poverty wages

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Sessionals get stiffed. Pixabay

New CBA, same old issues

The role that sessionals play on this campus is one of exceptional importance and is often overlooked by students. Oct. 7-11 is Fair Employment Week and the University of Regina Faculty Association’s (URFA) Sessional Advocacy Committee is tabling to raise awareness around sessional workers and how much the university relies on them.

It’s easy to place all academic staff into one large category, but the reality is that the expectations and compensation for sessionals and full-time faculty differ greatly.

Sessional issues were at the core of last year’s collective bargaining between URFA and the university administration; however, a great divide still exists between sessionals and other members of academic staff. While some of these inequities can be attributed to the fact that sessionals work single-semester contracts and the general nature of the position, Dwayne Meisner, a sessional at Campion College and a member of the Sessional Advocacy Committee, admits that his specific experiences in the position have been unique, however that does not negate the fact that there exists a great sentiment of discontent amongst his colleagues.

“I’ve been here since 2015 and I teach Classics. It’s a very small department; there are two professors and me – that’s it. So my experiences aren’t going to be the same as someone in the Faculty of Education, Kinesiology, Engineering: huge departments that would hire lots of sessionals to do multiple sections of courses.”

“Before I started university, I was working service industry, construction jobs, stuff like that. When I finished my Ph.D., to be able to come back home and get a teaching job here . . . it’s the best job I’ve ever had.”

“The last two years I’ve only had one class per semester and I’ve calculated it: teaching one course as a sessional pays about the equivalent of full-time minimum wage. You know what the difference is? Full-time minimum wage jobs don’t leave you unemployed four months a year.”

Meisner is one of seven members of the Sessional Advocacy Committee. Throughout the week, they have been tabling in Riddell to help educate the greater public of the issues facing them. They will be available to speak to the campus community on Thursday, Oct. 10 from 11-2.

“The Sessional Advocacy Committee is one of URFA’s standing committees, and what we do is attempt to be a place where sessional issues have a place to go. We’ve been trying to raise awareness about the difference between sessionals and professors – trying to bring sessionals together, because when it comes time for the next round of collective bargaining, then we can actually change things. If more sessionals are involved, then we have better luck in changing things – kind of turn us into a united voice.”

In a University of Regina document from July 11, 2018 titled “Employees with Annual Salaries of $100,000 or Greater”, The President and the Provost are listed as earning $365,998 and $316,053, respectively. Pay for sessionals exists on a four-level scale with the Sessional I stipend at $7,187 and the Sessional IV-Ph.D. stipend at $9,503.

When asked about this vast inequity between the comparatively minimal earnings of sessionals to that of top administrators, University Provost, Dr. Thomas Chase states, “It’s apples to oranges. The executive positions are full-time positions, the sessional stipend is per one course, which typically would mean three hours a week, plus prep-time, plus marking, plus meetings. [Editor’s Note: That’s a lot of plusses, Tom]

“The senior positions are ones that are usually going to people with decades of experience, both as professors and as leaders. President Timmons is in year 11 of a presidency that, by various markers, has been very successful, and yet she is paid far less than the President of the University of Saskatchewan, far less than the Alberta universities’ presidents and so on.

“The executive salaries reflect the responsibilities of the position and the length and depth of experience that you must have, even to compete with a position like that, whereas a single sessional stipend is to teach one course.”

Meisner recognizes that things are much less bleak if a sessional teaches two or three classes a semester, though he reiterates that this is only guaranteed income for four out of twelve months.

“Often, [sessionals] end up going on EI every summer and we have to reapply for our positions every semester, which is a hassle to say the least. It means very little job security.”

“Last year I was working two part-time jobs outside of the academy. One of them was a part-time job for the provincial government, the other one was a restaurant on the weekends. And my wife and I had a baby. So, three jobs and a baby . . . it was a hard year. It was a hard year just to get through it alive.”

“I think students, in general, understand what it’s like to have a heavy workload and a low income.”

“This semester I’m teaching three courses so it’s different, but I don’t know how it’s going to next year. And that’s the way it is for sessionals everywhere. We never really have a stable income and we get paid far less than professors or even instructors, who do get paid twelve months a year.”

In regard to sessionals who are experiencing extra burdens and financial hardship, Chase says, “I feel badly for those who are struggling. No one wants to see any member of the university struggling. The nature of the position is such that they are not full-time positions, they cannot be treated as full-time positions. It sounds harsh to say that, but that’s the reality. Having been, many, many years ago, a sessional, myself, I know.

Being employed by a Canadian university sounds like a comfortable engagement, but sessionals also receive fewer benefits than their full-time counterparts. According to URFA’s membership database, the ratios of full-time academic staff to sessional staff is 475 to 349 (U of R), 14 to 26 (Luther), and 15 to 12 (Campion). Meisner highlighted the difference between full-time faculty and those on sessional contracts

“Full-time academic staff get full-time benefits. Sessionals get part-time benefits. If I need to go see a dentist, I better hope that my teeth don’t break between May and August, because I’m only covered during the school year when I have a contract, and they only cover fifty percent. What sessional can afford the other fifty percent? For myself, I had to go out and get private benefits and so the benefits I get through my job are the secondary insurance.”

“A professor’s job involves three things: teaching, research and service on committees. Sessionals are hired just to teach. We get a contract to teach one course and if we’re lucky we’ll get more than one of these contracts. So, there’s no expectation that we’ll do any research and there’s no expectation that we’ll be involved in committees or any other university service. What that means then is that we get absolutely no support for research and we get excluded from the decision-making that happens in committees. And ironically, sessionals – more than anybody else among academic staff, need support for research and involvement in committees.

“[Employers] are looking for teaching experience, a good research plan and someone who can contribute to service. If I don’t get conference travel, I can’t present at conferences, if I have to work at part-time jobs to supplement my low income, I don’t have time for research, and if I’m excluded from committees, how do I gain service? So sessionals are being disadvantaged in all these different ways.”

“Last spring when [URFA and the university] were doing the negotiations, one thing that was a little disheartening was that there was one sessional on the bargaining committee who was working tirelessly to change things for sessionals, and they accomplished a lot, but [the university] didn’t give us everything we were wanting.”

Chase doesn’t ignore the obvious tactic of cost-cutting when it comes to hiring sessionals. “Obviously a full-time professor is much more expensive than a sessional lecturer, but the vast majority of sessionals teach two courses or fewer.”

Chase largely equates these limitations to “Budget constraints – we would love to be able to hire more full-time faculty. We’ve had no increase in the [provincial grant] for four fiscal years and yet salaries and benefits go up every year.”

Meisner pointed to the solidarity between sessionals and full-time faculty as a reason for the strike mandate in the last academic year, but disagreed with the idea that the administration’s argument is a sound financial one.

“Because both sessionals and tenured professors are in the same bargaining unit, the fact that they got a strike mandate, is due to the fact that professors were voting in favour of the strike mandate that was largely about sessional issues. So that tells me that, for the most part, tenured professors get it and they’re united with us in the desire for better working conditions for sessionals. It’s the administration that doesn’t want to change things.”

“Part of this is that if we paid sessionals more it would be more money out of their budget. The administration will always say ‘Oh we don’t have enough money in the budget to improve pay or anything else for sessionals’. That’s kind of a smokescreen. There’s money in the budget. It’s about their priorities – massive capital projects, or we could get really controversial and point out that the President and some of the other top administrators make three and four hundred thousand a year. We get eight thousand a course. We’re asking for crumbs from the table.”

Chase provided the Carillon with documentation that shows in the fall of 2018, just under 30 per cent of the total courses at the University of Regina were taught by sessionals. These numbers do not include sessionals at Campion, Luther or First Nations University. 71 per cent of sessionals received less than three stipends. Chase affirms that this number largely speaks to working professionals in their field and that those who rely on sessional contracts as a primary source of income is much smaller. The total number of sessionals for the 2017-2018 academic year was 565.

Meisner acknowledges that this issue is not exclusive to the University of Regina campus.

“It’s not just this university; this is a disease in the academic system in every university across the country. Over the last ten years there’s been an increasing move toward hiring more and more sessionals because it’s cheap labour and you can fill up the courses and bring in more revenue and tuition. It’s related to larger issues of universities following more of a corporate model than a public institution model. They want to raise their revenues and cut their expenses so they’re raising tuition and hiring more sessionals so that they can pat themselves on the back and say that they’ve balanced the budget. The result is that it weakens the ability of an institution to offer good education. If I have to work two part-time jobs in addition to teaching, I don’t have enough time to put into helping students, to put into preparing course material, marking things carefully.

“It’s in all of our best interests for the university to improve working conditions for sessionals. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the best job I’ve ever had. I’d like to keep my minimum wage teaching job, but it does need to improve.”

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