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St. Albert school support staff rally for fair pay

Waging Ahead Rally lines St. Albert Trail with purple

The walkway over St. Albert Trail became a ribbon of purple last Saturday as over a hundred school support workers rallied to call for better pay from the province.

About 120 people, including St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud, rallied by the BLESS Summer Nature Centre cabin on St. Albert Trail on May 11 to call on the province to give school support workers a living wage. Dubbed the Waging Ahead Rally, the demonstration was organized by and composed mostly of unionized school support staff from the St. Albert and Sturgeon, Parkland, and Leduc County regions.

Clad in purple shirts and waving signs with messages such as “Where’s The Funding?”, the cheering crowd marched down St. Albert Trail through a haze of wildfire smoke and lined up along the Trail’s walkway at around noon, drawing honks of support from passing drivers.

Danger and poor pay

Marshalling the marchers over megaphone was St. Albert educational assistant (EA) and rally organizer Heidi Hovis, president of CUPE Local 1099. She said she and her fellow support workers were rallying to raise awareness of the low pay and dangerous conditions they faced on the job every day.

Hovis said EAs like herself work in understaffed classrooms with special needs children, many of whom kick, bite, and throw objects at their helpers.

“It’s hard on our mental health knowing that every day we’re going to get beat up.”

Rally participant Alyssa Stiksma, an EA with St. Albert Public since 2016, said she recently spent six weeks recovering from whiplash and a concussion because one of her students pulled her to the ground and ripped some of her hair out.

“I couldn’t even play with my son,” she said.

St. Albert EAs have not had a raise in eight to 10 years despite inflation and rising classroom sizes, Hovis said. St. Albert EAs make about $30,000 a year on average or $21.49 an hour, which is less than the living wage ($23.80 an hour in St. Albert, reports the Alberta Living Wage Network). Many EAs work multiple jobs and struggle to make ends meet.

“There have been weeks where I’ve had less than $100 in the bank,” Hovis said, and cases where she has had to choose between clothes for her kids and gas for her car.

“I’m a single mom, and if it wasn’t for a lot of family support and government subsidy programs, I would not be able to survive at this income.”

Edmonton EA Melissa Doody was at the rally with a large sign that read, “I work two jobs; it equals more time with your kids less time with my kids!” She said working as an EA and a gymnastics teacher left her with no energy for her children.

“I’m spending more time with other people’s kids than my own. It’s heartbreaking.”

Call for fairness

Teachers need the support of EAs to effectively look after Alberta’s children, said Greg Carabine, a vice-president with the Alberta Teachers’ Association who attended the rally.

“If you want to have EAs in schools, you have to pay them a fair wage.”

Stiksma said she worked two jobs to support her family due to the low pay she got as an EA. Better pay as an EA would let her grow her family, move back to St. Albert, and work just one job so she would have more than an hour a day with her son.

Hovis called on the province to boost education funding so support staff could earn a living wage. EAs cannot do their jobs well if they are worried about having enough money to feed their families.

“If we don’t do our jobs very well, at the end of the day it’s the students who will suffer,” Hovis said.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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