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“Dangerous and irresponsible”: casual workers at U of T demand sick days, draw attention to precarity of work

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USW 1998 represents casual workers, including research assistants, lab assistants, and office staff. UMAMA SIDDIQI/THE VARSITY
USW 1998 represents casual workers, including research assistants, lab assistants, and office staff. UMAMA SIDDIQI/THE VARSITY

On January 6, the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1998 union released a YouTube video called “Precarity U” in which members share their experiences of working on casual contracts at U of T, aiming to draw attention to the challenges casual workers face. 

USW 1998 represents administrative and technical workers, and the Casual Unit, which is the second largest bargaining group in the union, represents support and technical staff such as research assistants, lab assistants, and staff in offices, residences, and gyms, among other jobs.

The video was part of the union’s campaign as it enters into bargaining with the university, according to Nick Marchese, the president of the USW Local 1998 Casual Unit.

“Precarity is real for our members,” he wrote in an email to The Varsity. “They are stressed by the fact that they don’t know if they will be rehired. They go from one short-term contract to the next [and] have no guarantee of hours of work.” Despite the fact that casual workers do not have all of the same benefits, especially paid sick days, Marchese stressed that many of them still work nearly full time. 

A U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity in an email that the university “values and respects the work of the employees in the USW Local 1998 Casual bargaining unit.”

“Over the past two decades, we have successfully negotiated numerous renewal collective agreements, and we look forward to constructive discussions with the Union in the current round of bargaining,” the spokesperson added.

Paid sick days 

One of the union’s demands is guaranteeing paid sick days for casual workers. “The current situation at U of T where we have continuous employees… who have medical benefits, including up to 15 weeks of paid sick days, sometimes working side by side with casual employees who earn not a single paid sick day is not only regressive and unfair, but also, especially during a pandemic, dangerous and irresponsible,” Marchese wrote.

A U of T spokesperson did not respond to questions about the lack of paid sick leave.

Marchese noted that casual workers’ lack of paid sick days has become “especially serious” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We know anecdotally that our members worry about calling in sick for fear of losing income,” Marchese wrote. “And while most are working offsite, there are some who must still go onto campus to work, and they risk infecting others.”

Two casual workers told The Varsity that they think U of T should guarantee casual workers paid sick days. “People go into work sick because we cannot afford not to,” wrote Gabriele Simmons, a second-year Ontario Institute for Studies in Education student who works as a research assistant at U of T. Paid sick days not only protect the health of the individual worker but also that of their workplace and wider community.”

Challenges faced by casual workers

USW 1998’s video features casual workers represented by the union, such as Simmons, who is also on the USW 1998 Casual Unit negotiating committee. In an email to The Varsity, Simmons reported experiencing “pretty major shifts to work since the pandemic hit.” 

“I found I was expected to attend far more (virtual) meetings and check-ins than ever before,” she wrote. “These contact points added up and… increased stress to complete my duties in a timely manner.” Simmons was on a casual contract that paid for a fixed number of hours per week. Her work schedule lacked the flexibility to accommodate these new tasks. 

After that contract ended, Simmons accepted a work offer for the fall semester. She was told that she had to perform various tasks before her contract had been finalized. “I trusted that I would be paid once the contract came in,” she wrote in an email to The Varsity

Simmons ended up performing unpaid tasks for three months before the contract came in. “The contract kept being delayed… [and] the amount I was owed was almost as much as my monthly rent.”

“I absolutely think there’s a misconception that graduate students aren’t in need of stable employment, professional development, health benefits, and paid sick days,” Simmons wrote. “Like so many at U of T, I depend on every paycheck that comes in to pay for my tuition, rent, groceries, and supporting my family.” 

While unions such as USW 1998 represent many casual workers at U of T, some remain non-unionized. Taylor*, a fitness instructor, is one such worker. Like other casual workers, she does not have paid sick days and works on a contract-to-contract basis. 

Taylor has found that with rising Toronto rent prices, the stipend she receives for her graduate studies is no longer sufficient to cover living expenses. She works as a fitness instructor to “supplement” her stipend and to cover “essential expenses like rent and groceries.” 

“I would definitely describe my work as precarious,” Taylor wrote to The Varsity in an email. “I can only confidently expect to be employed for a few months at a time.”

She conceded, “I guess in some ways I’ve accepted the precariousness of my work,” adding, “I think a union could be more beneficial.” 

According to Simmons, many students have, like Taylor, accepted the precariousness of their jobs. “We’re living in an economic moment where job precarity is the norm,” she wrote. “I love working at U of T and supporting my home institution, but many times I’ve felt pressure to be a ‘good sport’ about really overt job precarity. Many times, I’d like to speak up and draw firmer boundaries, but then I worry that my contracts will dry up or my hours will be reduced.” 

Simmons added, “No individual should face employment precarity where they’re unsure how much will be on their next paycheck… irrespective of their stage in life.” 

*Name has been changed due to fear of retribution from her employer.