Myth #2: Benefits just don’t make sense for Laurier’s “temporary” workers

This article is from the WLUFA Advocate February 2016 4.7.

It’s about fairness

In this series of articles, the Advocate explores the relationship of Contract Faculty members with the University, taking on prevalent misconceptions or “myths” about their working conditions, and providing some hard facts and figures so readers can assess the fairness of the two-tiered employment standards that are now well entrenched at Laurier. As we prepare to renew the Part-time Faculty Collective Agreement this spring, all faculty have the opportunity to press the Administration to address these and other issues.

Myth #2: Benefits just don’t make sense for Laurier’s “temporary” workers

Kimberly Ellis-Hale, Sociology

910—that’s the magic number of hours that most Laurier employees must work in order to qualify for at least some benefits. Office, bookstore and writing centre staff, special constables, ITS employees, custodial staff, grounds-keeping staff, administrative assistants and Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Education staff can all choose between extended health or dental benefits once they have worked a total of 910 hours at Laurier. And, after working 1,250 hours, they are entitled to both. (This, at least, is the case for all but the most recently hired employees, who—due to a two-tiered plan introduced in some of these groups’ latest contracts—now need to put in more hours to see the same benefits.) Still, the vast majority of Laurier employees (unionized or not) can be pretty sure a root canal, and the pain-killers needed to endure it, won’t burn too deep a hole in their pockets.

The same is true for Laurier’s managers and for the largest group on campus, Laurier students. In fact, full- and part-time Laurier students receive benefits simply by virtue of being a member of the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union.

Hmm. Who’s not at the benefits table? Let’s see, that would be Contract Faculty (CF), who receive four percent of their salary in lieu of benefits. Benefits for these “temporary” workers might not, at first glance, appear to make sense. After all, aren’t they possibly collecting benefits elsewhere, from other paid gigs? And wouldn’t they take advantage of Laurier’s generosity and run up all sorts of bills for prescription meds, dentists and massages during their short four-month stint here?

Aside from being uncharitable and ignoring the 910/1,250-hour qualification period, such an argument presumes that CF are not already a stable part of Laurier’s work-force. According to a 2014 WLUFA survey, 43 percent of CF identify Laurier as their primary place of employment, while 56 percent believe their work here constitutes permanent employment. That is, they do not see it as a stepping stone to something else. With three quarters of CF willing to teach at least three courses per term, and almost half already teaching at least five courses per year, this sector of Laurier employees is anything but “temporary.” And even if it was, why shouldn’t Laurier treat them like every other temporary worker it employs? According to WLUFA Employment Data, 25 CF teach the equivalent of 1,050 hours, and 71 teach 1,260 hours or more. Were they working in any other employment group on campus, they would have access to at least some form of benefits.

Contract Faculty do receive four percent of their salary in lieu of benefits. For many, the $279.41 per course before taxes is quickly gobbled up by a single dental check-up, a new pair of glasses, treatment for a strained back or the costs of medication. Or it is easily diverted to paying the rent or buying groceries. While salaries need to increase so that CF do not need to choose between healthcare and basic necessities in the first place, a proper (in-kind) benefit package would also provide insurance against unanticipated health related expenses, and some security that they can go on working into their 60s or beyond.

Contract Faculty have recently gained one benefit, but its provision points to a bitter irony. Remember the layoffs last year? In delivering the sad news to those affected, the Administration counselled them to take advantage of services provided by the Employee and Family Assistance Plan, only to learn that CF were not members of said plan. It has since rectified that oversight, and going forward, all laid off CF will have as much access to counselling as other members of the Laurier workforce.

As sad as it sounds, perhaps CF should use their meagre tuition benefit (up to $1,000 a year if the member teaches enough courses to qualify) to officially audit one course per year . . . at least that way they will be eligible for some coverage through the Students’ Union!

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