Question: Why aren’t teachers receiving the payment for front-line workers that was recently announced by the Alberta government and what is the Alberta Teachers’ Association going to do about it?
Answer: Let me start by noting that the Alberta government did not consult at all with the Association concerning the possibility of teachers receiving payment under the Alberta Critical Worker Benefit (ACWB) program and, furthermore, that the province’s approach to distributing these funds can be charitably described as incoherent. So coming up with a good answer to the first part of the question is going to be a bit challenging.
Let’s start with a bit of history. The money being doled out is part of a cost-shared $4 billion agreement between the federal government and the provinces concluded last May when the country was still in the midst of its first general COVID-19 lockdown. Ottawa would contribute $3 for every $1 spent by the provinces, and so the province of Alberta is contributing $118 million to the $465 million-dollar cost of the program in this province.
When it was first conceived, the program was intended to provide additional support to low-paid workers (those making less than $2,500 per month) who were providing essential services but who did not necessarily enjoy basic benefits such as paid sick leave or medical coverage and who often sought employment at multiple work sites. These workers were at high risk of contracting COVID-19 themselves and were potential vectors of infection if forced by their economic circumstances to report to work while ill. In particular, front-line workers in hospitals, long-term care facilities and the food industry were seen to be at the front of the line for this additional support.
Of course, this is Canada and so these best laid plans were subject in implementation to the tender mercies and peculiar sensibilities of the individual provinces. The $2,500 monthly income ceiling was quickly abandoned and a cross-Canada patchwork of salary top ups and lump-sum payments to different groups of workers in different provinces was initiated. Most provinces put some sort of salary support program for essential workers into place immediately, but not Alberta. Alberta effectively chose to let the funds sit idle for nine months until the ACWB was announced on Feb. 10, 2021.
And despite the delay, the plan (such that it is) still seems to be in development. Front-line health care workers will automatically receive the one-time payment of $1,200, but details concerning private sector workers are still to be released.
While about 380,000 deserving Alberta workers — including gas station attendants, social workers, grocery clerks, hospital orderlies and nurses — are ultimately expected to be eligible, other workers whose work exposes them to the public were not among the elect. Among those excluded from receiving ACWB benefits are police and corrections officers, paramedics, lab technicians, take-out delivery drivers, bicycle couriers, liquor and hardware store employees and, of course, teachers. Whether pitting worker against worker was a feature or a bug in the government’s design plan, I will leave to the reader to discern.
In responding to teachers being left off the list to receive ACWB benefits, ATA president Jason Schilling recognized that Association members continued to teach remotely and in schools, often in conditions that remain far from ideal or even reasonable. He observed, however, that teachers under contract were protected from the financial impact of COVID and enjoyed the protection of negotiated sick leave and medical benefit policies provided for in collective agreements.
Schilling highlighted in comments to government officials, other education stakeholder groups and to the media that substitute teachers not on contract are subject to the same risks as other teachers without many of these protections and, like administrative assistants, bus drivers, school caretakers and educational assistants, should be included in the list of those qualifying for the benefit. Like many of those education support workers, substitute teachers were also laid off in spring 2020 when schools closed to students.
Teachers’ justifiable irritation with having been excluded from the ACWB reflects not only a sense that their exceptional efforts during the pandemic emergency are being overlooked by government, but also a deep frustration with having had their salary grids frozen for seven of the last eight years and the sense that they have done more than their part to share the economic and fiscal burdens experienced by successive governments.
Ultimately though, teachers would be ill-served by a one-time payment that would be better directed to others in greater need. The place to deal with our larger and longstanding compensation issues is at the bargaining table, where we will be looking to catch up to other Albertans while pushing back against a government that will be seeking salary concessions from employees across the public sector. ❚
Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at Barnett House (firstname.lastname@example.org).