Calgary Herald

Educationa­l assistants seek wage hike as safety risks rise


Support staff in public schools who have been without a wage hike since 2015 are facing a growing number of challenges supporting high-needs students in overcrowde­d classrooms, including risks to personal safety.

The Calgary Board of Education Staff Associatio­n, representi­ng more than 6,000 support workers, is in contract negotiatio­ns, demanding a three per cent wage hike at a time when public schools take in record numbers of new students.

Warren Camp, director of operations for the staff associatio­n, said that because CBE has branded itself an inclusive system that turns no student away, no matter their complexity, educationa­l workers are facing more challenges than ever.

“We are the largest public system west of Toronto, with the highest number of special-needs students,” Camp said. “And we are seeing larger and larger classrooms, more and more complexiti­es, where staff are increasing­ly in danger.”

Camp said larger classrooms mean high-needs students with behavioura­l problems are getting less attention. As a result, they lash out physically more often, breaking objects, punching, kicking or pulling hair, as they struggle to regulate their emotions.

“Our staff are facing these threats every single day,” he said. “And many of these students are teenagers, big kids, as tall as six feet, weighing 200 pounds.”

Roberta Palendat, who has worked as an educationa­l assistant for several years but was laid off in June, said she suffered whiplash last year after a student grabbed her by the hair and pulled her off a chair.

“Many days, our jobs often involve putting out fires, whether working in a specialize­d class ... or in a regular inclusive program setting. It's a required skill we seem to use more frequently these days,” she said.

Camp said support staff are also struggling to balance low wages with a higher cost of living and a lack of affordable housing.

“They haven't seen a wage hike since 2015, and they've been without a contract since 2020. They deserve at least a three per cent hike, retroactiv­e to 2020.”

Other education workers, including custodians and building maintenanc­e staff represente­d by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, are also fighting for wage hikes.

CUPE'S We Work for Alberta campaign has collected more than 6,500 names, which have been attached to letters sent to the UCP government, demanding action around better funding for fair wages. Rory Gill, president of CUPE Alberta, said some educationa­l workers haven't received a wage hike in eight years, earning an average $34,300 per year.

Wages for educationa­l assistants, Gill added, are even lower at $26,388 per year, below Alberta's poverty line of $26,550, with many having to work two to three jobs just to pay the bills.

“Ed assistants have it especially hard, they're incredibly caring people, but they're being told to just suck it up,” said Gill.

Alberta Education says the government has increased funding for school authoritie­s by more than five per cent, and has provided targeted funding to help hire up to 3,000 additional educationa­l staff across the province.

“According to their own projection­s, school authoritie­s are expected to hire more than 2,600 teachers, educationa­l assistants and other support staff this school year alone,” said Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides.

Rob Armstrong, CBE superinten­dent of human resources, said the CBE is close to reaching a settlement with the staff associatio­n.

“We are committed to reaching an agreement that recognizes the hard work and dedication of more than 6,100 CBE employees represente­d by the staff associatio­n.”

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