Engineering teaching assistants (TAs) at U of T have reported taking on additional work during the transition to online teaching this year without receiving adequate compensation. Reported additional work includes requiring TAs to complete training sessions or to adapt to new online platforms.

The Varsity spoke to two engineering TAs about the challenges they’ve faced while teaching online courses, including working more hours.

TAs report uncompensated training time

Stacy*, a TA in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, wrote in an email to The Varsity that she was required to complete specific training modules, but was only compensated for a fraction of the time it took her to complete them. When Stacy reached out to her department informing them that she spent around 15 hours on the training modules, she received a response saying that the department would only pay for four hours of training.

“I just don’t understand why they make such courses mandatory, but then say they will only pay you for 4 hours,” Stacy wrote. “It is not just me being slow either. I spoke to several other TAs who also claimed to have spent around the same number of hours completing all the training.”

Julian*, who is also a TA in the engineering faculty, said in an interview with The Varsity that he also wasn’t compensated for all of the hours he spent completing his training. While he noted that compensation was proportionate for some of the training courses, he highlighted the time it took to complete the Quercus training, which included several different modules. 

“I definitely think the expectation that we could complete all of that in one hour and just get paid for one hour was a lot to ask because it was six plus hours, for some people maybe even more,” he said. 

Another issue was the transition to online learning and time spent becoming familiar with mandatory online teaching platforms, such as Blackboard Collaborate and Crowdmark. “These were pretty new to me and took a lot of time to figure out how to use,” Stacy wrote. 

“I had to read through the help pages written by the university and go through many of the ‘non-mandatory’ training modules on Quercus to learn how to navigate the sites.”

“They did cover a little bit of that in the training,” Julian said. “But… I just had to go in myself and try it out and practice and read some of the manuals from the companies themselves, too.”

“My biggest issue is not so much the amount of work,” Stacy wrote. “It is the fact that we will never be paid for all of the additional work that is required.”

Stacy mentioned that she has put in 90 hours of TA work since the start of the school year, but will only be compensated for 50 hours over the entire semester. Julian reported a similar experience. “I am… putting in way, way, way more hours than we’re getting paid for,” he said. 

However, he sees the extra time he’s spent working as an investment, when he hopes to teach this course again and reuse the lectures he’s spent his time preparing. “I probably won’t have to put much time in in future years.”

“With this job, I knew that if I’m having to prepare all [of] my own course materials, it’s just going to take a lot of time,” he added.

Responses from U of T, CUPE 3902 

In response to a question about how the university is ensuring that TAs are compensated for their work, a U of T spokesperson wrote that TAs are compensated based on the collective agreement with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3902 (CUPE 3902) Unit 1, “which sets out the terms and conditions of employment, including a commitment to provide compensation for all hours worked and any training that may be required.”

“Teaching Assistants make very important contributions to a wide range of academic programs at the University of Toronto and we appreciate their contributions,” they added. 

The spokesperson also noted that many TAs have completed the training on online teaching offered by the university. “More than 4,300 people participated in 60 webinars focused specifically on online teaching, and more than 1,300 people participated in ​online modules focused on a range of teaching-related topics,” they wrote.

Amy Conwell — chair of CUPE 3902, the union that represents contract academic workers at U of T, including TAs — wrote to The Varsity that “It’s a lot of work to shift a course from one delivery mode to another, and even more so when you have no time to prepare.”

“Inevitably, TAs… performed many extra hours of work learning to shift their work online, in many cases without adequate ergonomic set-ups for their short and long term and health and in some cases without the infrastructure necessary to perform work remotely,” Conwell wrote.

Conwell added that, in May, CUPE 3902 presented the university with a letter of understanding that asked U of T to commit to allocating equal or more TA hours for an online course as would have been allocated if the course had been taught in person. Another point in the letter of understanding was a request for a fund that could be used to support any additional costs incurred by working remotely.

According to Conwell, members, including TAs, “have had to lean on their collective agreement rights to request paid training and grieve.”

*Names changed due to fear of retribution.