While university jobs tend to follow laws strictly, mishaps still happen. Student employees are bearing the brunt of pay issues and unsafe work on Ryerson’s campus. Jeff Lagerquist investigates
Working for Ryerson sounds like a no-brainer. Why not try to earn back some of those tuition dollars with a gig on campus? But even when you land a job at the university, your rights can be overlooked.
“Labour issues are much more common than you may think, especially in the short-term positions that working students get,” said Simon Blackstone, a labour lawyer and partner with the firm Green and Chercover.
Blackstone says students usually aren’t aware of their rights.
“You should trust what you feel is right and wrong. When you hear something ethically questionable from an employer it ought to send up a red flag,” said Blackstone.
At the Bond Street Book Store, third-year social work student Megan Minott works behind the counter. She started in late August, just in time for the back to school rush.
The contract she signed won’t allow her to speak about how much she’s paid. But her main concern is how often. Minott has just seen her first cheque after working at the bookstore for over a month.
“The only reason I’m getting by is because I saved from my summer job. It doesn’t seem fair,” Minott said.
She was paid in full on Sept. 30.
“I’ve never heard of a pay period that long, they’re usually weekly or every two weeks,” said a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Labour. “Sometimes there are overlaps for newly hired staff, but over a month seems excessive.”
Blackstone said, “Employers are used to working their competitive advantage with clients and customers as they try to squeeze them for dollars. That often leads them to treat their employees in the same fashion.”
Danica Vidotto has been a lifeguard at the Ryerson Athletic Centre (RAC) pool for her entire career at Ryerson. With a full course load in her final year of Radio and Television Arts, she works between 25 and 30 hours per week at the RAC and other pools around the city.
The RAC pays her $10.75 per hour. Vidotto readily admits that her other lifeguard jobs pay more.
Perry Smith, program director at the Royal Life Saving Society of Canada, said, “Lifeguard wages in the GTA typically range between $15 to $20 per hour.”
“I find it very surprising that a certified lifeguard would be paid so little, especially considering the risks involved with the job.”
Joanna Milebeck*, a fellow lifeguard at the RAC, is unhappy with the lower wages.
“I find it frustrating because while the RAC is generally a quiet place, you still need to be ready at any moment to rescue someone, to deal with an emergency,” she said.
Milebeck said being a lifeguard means being CPR certified yearly and being recertified as a lifeguard every two years. The certifications add up to hundreds of dollars.
“The fact that I’m being paid the same as another employee at Ryerson that doesn’t necessarily have the training is frustrating,” said Milebeck. “It makes me feel as if the kind of skills I have aren’t appreciated.”
Although a lower than average wage is in no way illegal, being asked to perform tasks that you feel are unsafe certainly is.
Residence Advisors (RAs) provide leadership, guidance, and support for the students on their floor in residence. In many ways they shape a student’s first experiences at university in exchange for $5000 per year.
Diana Fletcher* worked in Pitman Hall as an RA two years ago.
“I had to enact my right to refuse unsafe work,” she said.
RAs are required to complete nightly security sweeps in the underground parking levels of Pitman Hall and the International Living and Learning Centre. In pairs, they check the emergency exit doors to make sure they are properly locked.
“I had no idea who or what was on the other side of these doors. There could have been somebody standing there with a weapon,” said Fletcher, who was 18 at the time.
With no cell phone service underground, the pager that Student Housing Services provided did not inspire much confidence.
She expressed her concerns to residence life and education coordinator Jen Gonzales who told her that she would “look into it.” That didn’t happen according to Fletcher.
Opting for a more formal approach, Fletcher sent Gonzales an email specifically outlining the issue and the section of the Employee Standards Act that protects her from unsafe work.
“She still didn’t consider it a valid concern,” said Fletcher, who eventually contacted the Ryerson’s ombudsperson for support.
Chad Nuttall, manager of Student Housing Services was unaware of any safety issues raised by RAs at Pitman Hall. He denies that Gonzales dismissed Fletcher’s concerns, but acknowledges that issues were brought before the Ryerson ombudsperson.
“We did have a number of staff identify that they were uncomfortable going to the lower levels of the ILLC,” he said.
Gonzales announced that RAs who were uncomfortable with the parking lot security sweeps could opt out until new safety precautions could be put in place. Fletcher and a few others accepted.
Meanwhile, Student Housing Services performed an internal safety audit.
“The main recommendation was to provide RAs with a radio so they could be in constant contact with residence security,” said Nutall.
That was two years ago.
Maya Mboup, a fouth-year business technology student, is a current RA. She says she has yet to see a radio on the job.
Inside the classroom, students can find work in their field of study as teacher’s assistants (TA), and graduate assistants (GA). This means preparing course material, leading tutorials, consulting with students, and plenty of marking.
Ryerson is one of the few universities that make a distinction between a TA and a GA. A GA is enrolled in a master’s or PhD program, TAs are undergrads. They’re paid for a set number of weekly hours outlined in their contract.
A TA gets paid $30.17 per hour. GAs get $39.02, and a GA in a PhD program pulls in $42.14 per hour.
“I know that sounds really high, but you’re paying for our expertise,” said Sarah Portway, a masters fashion student and GA for a class of 175.
The workload can change dramatically from week to week.
Dyan Ruiz, a masters of journalism student and GA for the past two years said, “You can end up working double the hours that you are paid for.”
TAs and GAs are required to hold office hours, complete course readings, and communicate with their students outside of class time. Compensation issues have been a point of conflict between universities and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in the past.
By most standards, universities are a pretty safe bet for students working their way through school. But the fact remains, if you expect to be treated fairly it’s up to you to know your rights. Ryerson is no exception.
“If you don’t know your rights you may find your toes being stepped on,” said Blackstone.
Next in the series, we take a look at the restaurant industry to see what stinks in the kitchen and behind the bar. Cheers and bon appetite!