As educational assistants (EAs) and the provincial government are at odds over wage increases, one Windsor mother is fighting alongside the workers who help her children.
"The public would say $39,000 sounds like an OK salary to get by," said Megan Ball Rigden, a public health and education advocate whose two children have autism. "But we need to remember these are other women with families, these are women with their own children with special needs and they are capped at a certain level of hours."
A strike mandate vote among education workers in the province, including EAs, started on Sept. 23 and ends at 6 p.m. this Sunday.
According to the head of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), which represents around 55,000 education workers in the province including librarians, custodians and administrative staff, a high number of members have already cast their vote.
"I think that that's really important because it speaks to how many workers are speaking up and saying enough is enough," said Laura Walton, president of OSBCU. "Whether a strike happens or not will really be on the shoulders of this government."
EAs are paid an average of $39,000 per year, according to their union. They are permitted to work only 35 hours a week and paid for 42 weeks out of the year. The rest of the time, they are laid off.
In a previous statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said EAs earn an average of $49,000 per year, with pension and benefits included.
The ministry statement also said the union is proposing a 33 per cent salary increase over the next three years and other increases related to compensation.
Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce was in Windsor on Tuesday to talk about how the provincial government is spending money on new schools in Windsor-Essex.
"We value what [EAs] do," the minister said. "So much so that we've increased funding for almost 5,000 more staff working in our schools."
Standing beside Windsor-Tecumseh MPP Andrew Dowie, Lecce said the province has spent more than $125 million on school construction in the region.
When asked by CBC News if $39,000 was enough for EAs and what they do, Lecce did not directly answer the question. Instead, the minister mentioned that the province was willing to offer an 8.24 per cent wage increase on their current wages.
Education workers are asking for a wage increase of $3.25 per hour.
Walton says the provincial government's offer is not enough to make ends meet for those who are feeling the pinch.
"Eight per cent is 33 cents an hour," she said. "For someone who makes six figures like the minister does, he must think eight per cent seems pretty good. But when you are struggling to put food on the table, when you're accessing food banks, when you're struggling to pay rent, and you're not even eligible for a mortgage, there's a big problem and a very huge disconnect."
Gale Simko-Hatfield, a public school board trustee for Wards 5,6,7 and 8 in Windsor, declined to weigh in on the negotiations but said EAs are very important in terms of supporting teachers in the classroom.
"There aren't enough people to employ in those positions right now," she said. "There is a labour shortage of education workers and I think part of the reason is because our school boards pay rate is so much less than the private sector and it's so much less than our coterminous boards."