Pandemic Highlights Precarious, Unpaid Work For Post-Secondary Contract Staff

This story is part of Learning Curve, a HuffPost Canada series that explores the challenges and opportunities for students, faculty and post-secondary institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 

In the spring semester, when students would ask Anna what classes she was teaching in the fall semester, she didn’t know what to say. 

As her students excitedly planned for their next semester, the University of Winnipeg lecturer didn’t even know if she would have a job after the summer.

Anna, who asked that her real name not be used because she is concerned about future job security and applying for permanent residency in Canada, found out midway through July that she would have a teaching contract for the 2020-21 year.

During the time when she worried she wouldn’t get another contract, as the country shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was concerned about an overall lack of available jobs. 

“It’s stressful enough being contracted, in that you’re never quite sure until you sign the contract you know what’s going to happen in the future,” the contract lecturer told HuffPost Canada. “But [the pandemic had] the added pressure of, OK, well, if there’s not this job, then there didn’t seem like any other options.”

WATCH: Canada’s top-rated universities slip in global ranking. Story continues below.

 

Five hundred people at the University of Winnipeg have been issued layoffs or had their hours reduced to zero as a result of the pandemic, according to university spokesperson Kevin Rosen. The university has also delayed hiring for 44 new positions. 

The University of Winnipeg is far from the only post-secondary institution to see a major adverse impact from prior cuts and now the pandemic, and contract faculty are feeling the brunt of it. 

More than half of faculty appointments in Canada are contract appointments, according to an October 2018 report titled Contract U, from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The report says that although public funding cuts have contributed to Canadian universities’ reliance on contract faculty, “austerity alone cannot explain this decision.” The decision is ultimately the result of choices made by university administrations, the report says, concluding that “heavy reliance on contract faculty in Canadian universities is a structural issue.”

“It’s still early in terms of assessing the impact of the pandemic, but what we are seeing is the continuation of these trends,” said Chandra Pasma, senior research officer with Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and co-author of the Contract U report.

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Contract staff often juggling several jobs

Some Canadian universities are facing funding cuts in the face of uncertain student enrolment amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Often, one of the first things to go is courses, which means even if it’s not an official layoff, contract lecturers aren’t rehired. The ones who are hired are transitioning their courses online, and many are not paid for their extra work.

Pasma said there isn’t official Canadian data on contract faculty, and the information we do have is from surveys that may not be statistically representative. Still, those surveys show that contract faculty tend to be women, are more likely than permanent faculty to have a disability and are more likely to be racialized. 

One 2018 report on Canadian contract faculty found 27 per cent of the 2,606 respondents — not a representative sample — identified as racialized. That’s a higher percentage than full-time faculty who identified as racialized in 2016 census data, the report says, adding that more research needs to be done into the possible overrepresentation of racialized contract faculty. Over half of respondents, 56 per cent, identified as women, and 57 per cent are the parent or legal guardian of one or more children.

Many contract faculty may also work at multiple schools or have a part-time job in the service industry, so if any institution operates under a hybrid or in-person model, contract staff could have a higher risk of transmitting the virus, Pasma said. 

“Most contract faculty don’t get paid for research in the first place, and now you’re at home, preparing a course you’re not being paid [to plan for], and then somehow you have to find time to do research so that hopefully you can still achieve that tenure track position down the road,” she said. “That puts people in a completely impossible situation.” 

CUPE has been advocating for the federal government to extend the emergency wage subsidy to publicly funded colleges and universities so post-secondary institutions can ensure they have the staff they need to deliver courses, as well as staff to disinfect campuses, Pasma said. 

Christine Trauttmansdorff, the vice-president of government relations and Canadian partnerships at Colleges and Institutes Canada, noted that some employees from on-campus eateries, parking services and campus security also might’ve lost their jobs in March when campuses closed.

Any part-time faculty who are working a second job could have also seen less work or been laid off in that field too, she added, such as for people working in hospitality or recreation sectors. 

“They may be getting a double whammy — they may be losing their day job and they may be losing their part-time work with the college as well,” she said. 

Karen Foster, an associate professor of sociology at Dalhousie University who has studied precarious employment, said universities need to make it a priority to extend contracts wherever they can. While it makes sense that occasionally contract lecturers need to be hired to fill in gaps, administrators need to recognize that they are also relying on contract instructors for what should be permanent courses, she said.

“If we acknowledge that and then try to move toward longer contracts for people who are not on the tenure track, I think that’s an improvement,” Foster said. 

She also said it’s important for contract faculty to have their voices heard in conversations about campus reopening plans, and be kept in the loop to the same extent that full-time faculty are.

Pandemic highlights ‘underlying issues’

Anna, the University of Winnipeg lecturer, spent August preparing for the three courses she is going to teach in the fall semester: creating her course syllabus, recording videos where she explains assignments and making her PowerPoint presentations. As in a normal year, she won’t be paid for the extra work she puts in to get ready for the semester, even though preparing for online learning takes “10 times longer” to prepare to teach, she said. 

“Being in a contract position, you’re still expected to be producing research and preparing for the future and all of those things — but you’re not getting paid for it,” she said. “That’s the situation, coronavirus or no coronavirus. There’s always these underlying issues.” 

If contract faculty are paid for their preparation work, they’re likely “significantly underpaid” for it, Pasma said.

“There’s a lot of contract faculty who are now doing that work for free without the resources and support that they need,” she said. “Some of them are also doing the additional unpaid work of caregiving for children or elderly parents, so it’s a lot to ask for from people right now. Especially when it’s a difficult mental and emotional situation for everybody, in the middle of this global crisis.” 

Contract staff are not just in the classroom. One librarian, whose contract was renewed at the last minute after two years at a French-minority university, said that libraries, like other student services, are typically the first to feel the effect of cuts. 

The librarian asked to be anonymous so as not to affect her relationship with her university. 

She said her layoff would have meant fewer staff to directly help with essays or navigating databases, and fewer staff to help the students’ professors find online resources.

It’s been stressful on a personal level too, she said. The frantic, day-to-day work of trying to help professors transition courses online meant as she kept working throughout July it didn’t quite sink in that she wouldn’t have a job at the end of the month, before she found out her contract would be renewed. 

Despite the renewal, she’s taking online courses in teaching technology since there’s a high demand for services to help with online learning. 

The impact of the cuts will ultimately trickle down to students, Trauttmansdorff said. “If you cut programs, you lay off people, you reduce your capacity to provide students with good services.” 

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