The call of duty

December 1, 2015 Cory Hare, ATA News managing editor
Executive staff officer Genevieve Blais fields a phone query from a member during a shift as the Teacher Welfare duty officer.

Editor’s Note

This story also appears in the winter 2015 issue of the ATA Magazine. To be published Dec. 5, this issue focuses on the work of the Teacher Welfare program area of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

The Teacher Welfare program area fields thousands of calls each year from teachers and their loved ones who need help dealing with circumstances ranging from the curious to the tragic.

Each of these telephone queries is handled by one of eight executive staff officers assigned to the program area.

“We all are teachers and we like talking to teachers,” says program co-ordinator Sandra Johnston. “That’s one of the very nice parts about this job.”

Teacher Welfare staff answer questions that are mostly related to details contained in collective agreements. Calls about extended disability and sick leave are the most numerous, followed by maternity and parental leave, other leaves, collective agreement issues, bargaining and pension/retirement.

Each local in the province is assigned to one of the eight executive staff officers. Teachers’ calls are routed to the officer assigned to their local; however, the officers’ duties often take them out of the office, so they take turns filling the role of duty officer, a daily assignment that involves answering the calls of absent colleagues.

“You have to be prepared to answer almost anything and you don’t get a whole lot of other work done that day if the call volume is high,” says Marg Preston, a staff officer with five years of experience.

An average day as duty officer will involve anywhere from 12 to 20 calls but it has ranged as high as 50, Johnston says.

The main traits that a staff officer must possess are the ability to listen, to empathize with callers’ situations while remaining emotionally detached and the intellectual capacity to read and understand all 62 collective agreements that are currently in effect in the province, Johnston says.

The staff officers must be able to digest the information provided by the teacher, zero in on the pertinent issues, find out what information the caller requires and clearly explain it. Adding to the challenge is the fact that many callers are under stress and/or sick, and some may not be able to fully concentrate or remember details.

“If you’ve got somebody who’s really agitated on the other end of the phone, you have to calm them down and talk them off the ledge, almost,” Preston says.

Apart from the frequent maternity leave calls, most calls involve stress and sadness. For example, this past fall Preston had a call from the spouse of a young teacher who’d died, leaving behind a young child. The question was about the deceased member’s pension and benefits.

Because teachers have established a strong safety net for themselves, Preston was able to assure the grieving spouse that, along with a life insurance payout from the Alberta School Employee Benefit Plan (ASEBP), the spouse and family will continue to have health benefits for one year at no cost to them. After a year, the surviving spouse will be eligible to purchase group health benefits through ARTA. The surviving spouse will receive the member’s pension benefits for life and the child/children will have benefits through ASEBP until they’re 18 (25 if they’re full-time students).

“We were able to give that news to [the spouse] which, in a tragedy, was a bright light,” Preston said.

Most queries can be answered by turning to the relevant collective agreement, but it’s still not a bad idea to call Teacher Welfare, says Genevieve Blais, a staff officer who joined the area in March 2015.

“I say don’t hesitate to call if you are unsure because each situation is unique and we may be able to point out entitlements or issues that you aren’t aware of.”

Given that the young female demographic comprises a significant proportion of the teaching profession, maternity leave is a growing area for Teacher Welfare, Johnston says. Moms-to-be are often excited but also concerned about money as they begin a largely unpaid leave. 

“We have had women call us asking what the best time is to have a baby. We tell them we can only explain the salary and benefits they will receive. The rest is out of our hands,” Johnston says. 

She remembers getting a call from a new mother who had quickly gotten pregnant with her second child. The caller was very unsure whether she would qualify for Employment Insurance or a maternity leave from her employer.

“She called us to ask even before telling her spouse that they were ­expecting,” Johnston says.

While most calls come from individuals, Teacher Welfare is sometimes called upon to settle an argument that has erupted in a staff room concerning some aspect of the teachers’ benefits.

“They’ll put us on speakerphone so we can settle the dispute,” Johnston says. “That’s always funny.”

Overall, while the staff officers deal with a lot of sad situations and a lot of tears, Johnston says there’s a positive aspect to their interaction with teachers.

“There is an immense satisfaction, when you get someone who is very stressed, to be able to take some of that away.” ❚


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