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Op-ed: U of T must do better to support the lives and livelihoods of its workers during COVID-19

The university must prioritize employment security, decent wages
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U of T front campus. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY
U of T front campus. JADINE NGAN/THE VARSITY

On March 31, Divestment and Beyond — a coalition of faculty, staff, and students committed to fossil fuel divestment and climate justice at the University of Toronto — wrote an open letter to our administration, calling on them to protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 1,350 faculty, staff, and students endorsed that call.

Our letter commented on the university’s commitment to pay continuity for staff until April 30, 2020, and insisted that it must do better. We called on U of T to protect the livelihoods of its staff through the pandemic, and to support employees who are caring for others. We pointed to institutions like Australian National University, which has reduced the work week with no loss of pay for primary caregivers. We insisted that leadership in this moment must entail the protection of lives and livelihoods and the enhancement of a collective sense of care. 

In response to this call, it wrote on April 7 that it was “discussing what can and will happen after April 30 and will communicate with the University community on these considerations as soon as [it is] able.” 

The university extended its promise of pay continuity to May 31, and wrote that “Employees will be updated after this period if circumstances change.” May 31 has come and gone, and U of T remains silent on the matter of job security.

Many staff have no sense of their futures; some have already received temporary layoff notices, and the most precarious workers in Canada are overwhelmingly women and racialized people. Messaging across the university has been inconsistent and confusing. Indirect employees — those subcontracted in certain food services, for instance — have already been let go. U of T has also neglected to provide commitments to support caregivers. 

Why has the administration failed to provide further assurance of employment security? And why are critical decisions being made about our futures behind closed doors? 

We advocate for the enhancement of mental health resources on campus as a cornerstone of a just transition, and yet, counselling services are no substitute for employment security. 

The University of Toronto has been widely commended for its public health leadership and societal commitment in the context of the pandemic. But such leadership has little meaning if it is not also directed to our own community. Employment security, decent wages, and the protection of workers against discrimination and workplace hazards are all crucial determinants of physical and mental health.

Job loss and employment precarity, conversely, increase the likelihood of poor nutrition, emotional stress, loss of shelter, and its attendant consequences, including greater exposure and susceptibility to infectious diseases and the aggravation of chronic disease. A period of severe economic and social uncertainty is no time to lay off staff, especially food and service workers, a population that is highly racialized, feminized, and often living paycheck to paycheck. 

U of T is a wealthy institution and can afford to step up. In 2019 it held a $2.6 billion endowment — the largest in the country — and has large reserves from its investment income even without touching the principle.

According to the university’s own 2018–2019 endowment report, U of T “does not spend everything earned through the investment of funds in years when investment markets are good. In those years, the university sets aside and reinvests any amounts earned in excess of the spending allocation.” The report documents a net excess of $885 million over the last decade — reserves that could take us far in this moment.

A wealthy, globally-ranked public institution that claims to be a model employer dedicated to advancing the public good must do better for all members of its community. The funds are available; what we need is leadership from the senior administration, with meaningful consultation from the staff, students, and faculty who are most affected. Now is the time for leadership to mobilize our institution’s wealth and influence — to protect lives and livelihoods, and to sustain the important role of every member of our tri-campus community through this crisis.

Signed,

Evelyn Austin, Kristy Bard, Joseph Berkovitz, Carmen Bezner Kerr, Kathy Bickmore, Anne-Emanuelle Birn, Deborah Cowen, Anup Grewal, Matthew Hoffman, Paul Hamel, Justin Holloway, Nicole Latulippe, Kate Neville, Amanda Harvey-Sánchez

Divestment and Beyond is a coalition of faculty, students, and staff that is dedicated to fossil fuel divestment and aims to achieve climate justice at the University of Toronto by encouraging U of T administration and working with the U of T community.