Unionized non-teaching staff and their employer, the BC Public School Employees' Association (BCPSEA), gear up to enter another round of negotiations early next week after parties reached an impasse Monday.
On the one side, workers want a four per cent increase over two years without concessions, while government is offering the same increase, but with concessions.
"If it continues like this, we'll have no option but job action," said June Kaiser, president of CUPE 716, which represents Richmond workers. "We don't want to. We're making very little money now and with job action we'll make even less. But we're not standing for this anymore."
Education assistants haven't received a wage increase since 2009, according to Kaiser, despite inflation and the ever-rising cost of living in B.C.
The latest proposal by the government included cuts to paid sick time by two thirds and sick day pay by 15 per cent for the newest employees in order to make up for the wage increases.
Workers currently have 18 sick days per year, according to Kaiser.
That would go down to six.
"Our sick bank is sacrosanct to us," she said, adding workers haven't gone on strike in 13 years.
"We're suffering here. Some of us are using the food bank, more people have to work two jobs. On top of that, it's difficult attracting people to the profession."
She added teachers have said they won't cross the picket line if it comes to job action.
Workers and the BCPSEA return to the bargaining table next Monday to Wednesday.
As negotiations continue, Minister of Education Peter Fassbender sent a letter to school board chairs requesting secretary treasurers develop a cost savings plan to fund wage increases for support staff. The Richmond School Board responded with an open letter to the ministry (see Choice Words on page 8), saying such a request would force the board to make significant cuts to schools.
"With the letter, we wanted the public to know we will be doing this because we have been instructed to do so, but it means we will have to make cuts to staff and services," said board chair Donna Sargent, though she couldn't specify what would be cut first.
If the government agrees to a four per cent increase without concessions next week, it'll be up to school boards to find the extra money through cost savings.
Although Sargent hasn't received much feedback from Richmond school district staff and parents, the board's letter was one of the most read stories on the News' website.
"In developing the cost savings plan, the secretary treasurers can determine what they feel are core education services they don't want cut and can bring that to the table to be reviewed," said a ministry spokesperson.
The ministry added the government has been clear that negotiations with public sector workers have fallen under a cooperative gains mandate since 2011, meaning it wouldn't be coming up with money to fund modest compensation increases for workers.
More than three quarters of the sector have settled under cooperative gains agreements, according to the ministry. Further, a number of school districts have already come forward with cost savings plans.
"Other public sector unions have negotiated better offers so we don't understand why we're the ones who don't get any increases," said Kaiser. "ICBC, BC Ferries, transit employees, these contracts cost millions. We work with vulnerable children. Four per cent over two years is not a hell of a lot of money.
"It's laughable when the government says there's no money. There's money for what they want to pay for."
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