By Cindy Oliver, Anne Skoczylas, Brenda McLean, Geoff Martin, George Davison, Sandra Hoenle & Petra Ganzenmueller
One of the consequences for academic staff of the shift from permanent, secure employment to insecure, contract employment, has been the need for contract academic staff to resort to unemployment benefits. Even if, consistent with CAUT policy, all contract academic positions are six- or 12-months in duration, there will still be periods of unemployment or underemployment for those employees. Ensuring that contract academic staff members are entitled to receive Employment Insurance benefits must be a major priority for CAUT and its member associations.
Since the mid-1990s, eligibility for EI benefits has been connected to the hours worked by an individual in the previous 12-month period. In a number of ways contract academic staff, especially those who work part-time, have been disadvantaged by this new system. Even though we are professionals, it is normally the employer who defines, or deems, the number of hours a contract employee has worked. Employers often take the position that full-time contract academic staff work 35-40 hours per week, while part-timers are deemed to have worked only a fraction of this time. A contract academic staff member’s number of weeks of EI benefits is directly related to the number of insurable hours of work for which he or she is paid during the qualifying period before the end of the contract. Typically, Service Canada, the federal agency that operates the EI system, accepts the employer’s deemed hours without dispute.
In many institutions the employer makes this decision arbitrarily without regard for the enrollment variations of classes, the particular discipline, or the other activities of the member. Currently, a majority of part-time contract academic staff work under stipendiary contracts and the deemed hours in these contracts reflect the employer’s position that these are “teaching-only” positions. Because academic duties are greater than employers typically recognize, contract academic staff members often find they have worked more hours than the hours deemed by the employer. In past years, contract academic staff have successfully gone to court (in cases such as Franke v. Minister of National Revenue, and McKenna v. Minister of National Revenue) to substitute their own work logs for the hours of work determined by the employer.
We should view the number of insurable hours of work deemed by the employer as an employment benefit that should be negotiated at the bargaining table. Academic staff associations should advocate deemed hours for part-time contract academic staff that accurately represent the prorated nature of the academic job. That is, deemed hours should reflect the typical teaching, research and creative activity, and service activities by both full- and part-time contract academic staff. Determining hours of work for these employees should be based on a formula connected to the number of courses taught, the enrollment in those classes, the year level of the classes, lab, studio or clinical components, supervision of teaching assistants, as well as supervision of independent-study and graduate students, and any other relevant teaching activities. Further, hours should also be agreed for a member’s research, creative activity and service activities.
It is as important that contractual provisions obligate the employer to deem a greater number of hours for contract academic staff who have logged more than the hours produced by the operation of the formula. By obliging the employer in this way, the contract academic staff member is saved the difficulty of appealing within the EI system, which is now required for upward revision of the deemed hours produced by the employer.
In addition to these bargaining challenges there may be more we need to do on the political and legal fronts, to address a new issue on the horizon. Even though Service Canada will accept an employee’s log of when they worked, for the purpose of determining his or her entitlement to benefits, it’s a different story when a member is both collecting benefits and working part-time. Service Canada will not accept an employee’s log of hours worked and income earned if it is different from an employer’s claim based on the employment contract. Typically, employers claim employees work the same number of hours each week throughout a contact, even though in reality marking and other activities mean there are variations in hours on a week-to-week basis.
Numerous part-time employees who initially received EI benefits have been forced to repay the funds, despite the multibillion dollar EI surplus, because of the lack of flexibility in the system. Besides our efforts at the bargaining table, CAUT and its member associations should support claimants who want to launch a court challenge against this aspect of the system.
Cindy Oliver, Anne Skoczylas, Brenda McLean, Geoff Martin, George Davison, Sandra Hoenle and Petra Ganzenmueller are members of CAUT’s executive-appointed contract academic staff committee.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.
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