Educational assistants in Ontario say they're fighting to make a livable wage

·6 min read
Darlene Sawchuk, left, and Katie Pieczonka, right, at the 2022 Windsor Labour Day Parade. Union heads like Sawchuk want more done to support educational assistants like Pieczonka and other education workers. (TJ Dhir/CBC - image credit)
Darlene Sawchuk, left, and Katie Pieczonka, right, at the 2022 Windsor Labour Day Parade. Union heads like Sawchuk want more done to support educational assistants like Pieczonka and other education workers. (TJ Dhir/CBC - image credit)

Katie Pieczonka has been an educational assistant with the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board (WECDSB) for 14 years. She says from a young age, she knew she wanted to assist children who struggle emotionally and mentally.

"I didn't want to be a teacher," she said. "I wanted to be a teacher of special needs in the school setting."

EAs work with children who are identified as requiring special needs. Pieczonka says they do everything from assisting them with their education, feeding them and taking them to the bathroom.

TJ Dhir/CBC
TJ Dhir/CBC

There are EAs who also help deal with behavioural issues. Pieczonka says these workers have to deal with children who kick, hit, bite and spit at them every day.

According to their union, the average pay for educational workers is $39,000 per year. Pieczonka says they deserve more. Pieczonka says based on what she makes now, it's hard to make ends meet.

"It's extremely difficult to make a livable wage with what we currently earn," said Pieczonka. "We are individuals who are all post-secondary educated, so we come with a high degree of capabilities. But we're in a role that's paying us under $40,000 annually."

Pieczonka says EAs are permitted to work for only 35 hours a week and paid for 42 weeks out of the year. The rest of the time, they are laid off, she says.

Amy Dodge/ CBC
Amy Dodge/ CBC

It's forced her to take on a second job. She works a second job as a bartender/server at the WFCU Centre.

"I've always worked in the hospitality field," she said. "But that takes away from my home and my three children. When I leave a school that I commit my whole self to, I go to a part-time job two or three days a week, or give up my entire Sunday to work at my other job to make a livable wage to take care of the rising costs of everything."

Doing double-duty 

Pieczonka's situation is not an isolated case.

One local union head is hearing stories from EAs who are working at least one other job just to support themselves and their families. They have also heard from EAs asking for more resources to carry out their jobs effectively.

"Continual cuts means work added every year," said Darlene Sawchuk, president of CUPE Local 1358. "There's never a break. You never feel like you get to catch your breath. Folks are exhausted, they're overwhelmed and a lot of them are looking for alternatives."

TJ Dhir/CBC
TJ Dhir/CBC

The story of one EA sticks out to Sawchuk. This EA was in her early to mid-40s and she was hit with a double whammy.

"Her car died, and she had to choose between having a car payment or paying rent because she could not do both," said Sawchuk. "She's a full-time permanent employee with seniority who ended up choosing transportation so that she could get to work."

She was camping out in my office on the really cold nights - Darlene Sawchuk, president of CUPE Local 1358

"She had to give up her apartment, and she was camping out in my office on the really cold nights. She had a membership at Planet Fitness so she could have a shower in the morning and go to work."

Parents with children who require an EA also have a say.

One Windsor mother has seen the positive impact EAs have had on her children.

"I've seen it with my own kids," said Megan Ball Rigden, whose children have autism. "They've worked real hard and that's because they had some of that time one-on-one for a year. Every kid deserves that."

WATCH | A Windsor mother whose children require an EA discussed the importance of EA's:

Ball Rigden says that EAs can do a lot of good to a lot of kids.

"They're doing a tremendous job that will change life trajectories," she said. "And I'm not talking about a few dozen kids. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of kids. I really think that we need to take that a little more seriously."

Lowest-earning education workers want better pay

Even though kids are now back in school across the province, teachers and other public sector employees in the province are now working without a contract.

"They're very angry right now," said Laura Walton, president of the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU). "Parents are also angry, and I think it's really important that workers and parents have that voice."

Education workers across the province who make under $40,000 have been asking for a wage increase of a specific dollar amount — $3.25/hour. That's an 11.7 per cent increase.

The offer presented by the provincial government had an increase in the range of 33 cents per hour to 55 cents per hour.

TJ Dhir/CBC
TJ Dhir/CBC

Under the previous contract, wage increases were limited to a one per cent annual increase.

Statistics Canada said the annual inflation rate in July was 7.6 per cent.

Unions have said they are pressing for increases to both compensate for the wage restraint and to address the rising cost of living. Sawchuk believes that previous reporting which highlights the 11.7 per cent wage increase is misleading.

"It get the public angry, and they think, 'How dare they ask for 12 per cent?'" she said. "We're not. We're asking for $3.25 an hour, which is affordable. In the last 10 years, we've had an 8.8 per cent increase. In the last 10 years, inflation has been over 19 per cent. We're not even keeping up with the cost of inflation. That's what we're asking."

There is such a disparity between the two sides that the OSBCU has filed for conciliation with the Ministry of Labour. The ministry will now provide a conciliation officer, a neutral third-party who will listen to all sides and will work with everyone to create a resolution.

The OSBCU and the provincial government are scheduled to meet on Sept. 16, 20 and 21 to continue negotiations

The OSBCU has an internal strike vote scheduled from Sept. 23 to Oct. 2. Walton believes that a strike vote is the next step, she cautions against relying on a potential strike.

"It doesn't mean that a strike is going to happen," she said. "Rather it is an opportunity for workers to use their voice and that to us is extremely important."

Political response

CBC News has reached out to the Ministry of Education requesting a comment on the conditions and compensation EAs in the province face, as well as, the conciliation filed by the OSBCU.

So far, the Ministry of Education has said that EAs earn an average of $49,000 per year, with pension and benefits included.

CBC News is waiting for more information from the ministry.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press