Last month, the Alberta Education Employees Committee published a media release on their website regarding a new campaign to raise awareness around low wages for education support workers in Alberta.
The AEEC is a committee of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Alberta.
The union distributed over 10,000 pins throughout the province with the message “We are worth more than 0%” printed on them.”
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As part of the campaign, AAEC asks that its members, supporters, and other workers wear purple every Wednesday, in addition to the pins, in a show of solidarity with these workers and a reminder that unions work for people.
I reached out to Joanne Lavkulich, the chair of the AEEC, for more information on the story behind the campaign.
According to Lavkulich, wages for education support workers have increased by an average of 0.97% across Alberta between 2014 and 2023.
Inflation on the other hand, Alberta’s consumer price index increased from 132.2 in April 2014 to 161.7 in March 2023. In other words, while wages were increasing at less than a percent for education support workers over the last decade, inflation increased by a whopping 22.3%.
To put it another way, for every $1000.00 these workers made in 2014, they’re now making $1009.70. However, for every $1000.00 they spent a decade ago, they now have to spend $1223.14 for the same things.
When economists adjust wages for inflation, they call it “real wages”. Lavkulich told me that the average education support worker makes $27,500 a year. After adjusting for inflation of 22.3% over the last decade, education support workers have seen their average income actually decrease to $21,363.46 a year.
Education support workers in Alberta include educational assistants, administrative support, library workers, custodians, caretakers, maintenance workers, IT support, career counsellors, school accountants, and bus drivers.
A few months ago, AEEC conducted a health and safety survey of its members. Nearly 1,800 members from 30 school divisions responded to the survey, 63% of which were educational assistants or otherwise provided direct student support.
More than half of the respondents said they are working at least one other job or were looking for an additional job to supplement their income. More specifically, 29% said they have a second job, and 4% said they also have a third job.
Of those who have at least one other job, 89% said they took the other job(s) to help meet their daily living expenses. The report quoted several respondents in this regard.
For example, one said they took additional work because “almost my entire paycheck goes to paying my mortgage. Between my wife and I, we work five jobs to pay the bills.”
Another respondent reportedly claimed that “at less than $30,000 per year, it is impossible not to work another job even in a two-income household”.
A third apparently said that they’re “working a second job because of the increased cost of living and the lack of increase in pay”.
These education support workers aren’t just finding additional work either to make ends meet. The report claims that several have had to drastically change their spending habits.
For example, 1 in 3 workers claimed that they are behind on paying their bills. The same number have had to borrow money from family and friends or had to take out a payday loan. A similar percentage have also been unable to afford health and dental treatments or prescriptions and half of those have dealt with poor health as a result.
Some of the respondents reported not being able to meet their daily living needs. One said that they “have hard time to buy grocery sometimes”. Another claimed that they “have to choose between paying bills each month or buying some groceries”. Another said that they are “using more credit that I can afford”.
For every 17 workers who responded to the survey, 1 claimed they had to use a food bank to make ends meet.
It’s also led to housing insecurity for some workers. One worker, for example, said that they‘ve tried to buy a house, but they have “been turned down multiple times because of my pay”. Another reported that they “worried about losing my house”.
It’s gotten so bad for some workers, that one of them reported that they are “filing bankruptcy” and another said that they’re “unable to retire”.
Education support workers throughout the province have been waiting for years for a new contract, ever since their old ones expired in 2020.
Take workers in the Lethbridge School District 51, for example. The majority of CUPE Alberta workers are with Local 2843, and their most recent contract expired in August 2020. That three-year contract, which was settled under the NDP government, saw wage freezes in every year.
The previous contract ran from 2012 until 2017, and included wages freezes in the first 3 years but a 2% increase in the final two years. In an eight year period, they had a combined increase of 4%, or an annual average increase of 0.5%.
Because their most recent contract had wage freezes, they didn’t see wage increases in 2021, 2022, or 2023. They’re effectively stuck at wages set in 2016.
Lavkulich told me that the government has proposed a 5-year contract for educational support workers, with an additional 3 years of wage freeze. That would mean 6 years straight without an increases.
In the final two years, if the contract is ratified, they would get a 1.25% increase and a 1.5% increase, both of which are less than what they got in the last two years in their final contract under the PC government.
If the workers accept and ratify this agreement, it would mean 9 years of wage freezes over a 12-year period, with a combined increase of 6.75% during that entire period.
Remember, that inflation in 2022 for Alberta was 6%, so the wage increase over 12 years is barely enough to cover inflation for just 1 year.