Surprise! The Collective Agreement We Voted On Is Not the One We Got!: Part One: New Systems for Calculating Sick Days and Salary Deductions

By Robert Green

With the text of the new collective agreement now in circulation, teachers in Quebec’s English school system are coming to realize that this agreement contains numerous important changes they were not aware of. They were not adequately informed of these changes when their union leaders recommended they vote for the agreement. Nor have the details of these provisions been adequately explained to them at any point since the contract came into effect last year. Now teachers are scrambling to react to the implementation of these changes without fully understanding their implications.

This article will attempt to outline some of the implications of the surprise changes that have been noticed so far. Part one will focus on the new system for calculating sick days and the new system for salary deductions. The second part of this article will focus on the new system for the payment of year-end bonuses and the new system for department heads.

New System for Calculating Sick Days

As teachers were being asked to fill out their personal presence time for their administrations, information began to trickle out that this would have implications for their use of sick days. As an MTA memo of Octobre 24 explained, absences would now be deducted by the minute rather than by the day, resulting in a system whereby a teacher could potentially lose more than a single sick-day from their bank of sick-days for phoning in sick on a particular day.

The memo states that these changes are due to the new contract. However, section 5-10 which contains the provisions related to sick days makes no mention of such a minuted system. Thus far, neither the MTA nor QPAT have indicated precisely which section of the new contract this provision stems from.

Not to worry though, the memo assures us that it might be possible to make this new system “work for us”. The collective agreement contains a provision [8-6.02 d) iii)] that allows teachers to make temporary changes to our personal presence time with 24 hours notice. The memo suggests that we use this provision to avoid exceeding the 384 minute threshold that will now result in a teacher losing more than a single sick day from their bank. This is certainly a possibility. Teachers who are able to plan their sick days more than 24 hours in advance will likely be able to temporarily rearrange their personal presence time such that they will lose less than a day’s worth of minutes from their bank of sick days.

While this may seem advantageous to some, it raises several important questions. Why should we have to use a loophole to avoid being penalized by this new system? If a loophole is required to avoid being penalized why was this provision agreed to in the first place? Why were the members not informed of this provision at the time that they voted? Will the school board be able to accurately keep track of such temporary changes, let alone the regular schedule? It would seem reasonable to expect that the difficulties many teachers already experience with the EMSB’s payroll department are bound to get worse with this complicated new system.

An Octobre 17th memo from MTA executive assistant John Winrow also mentions that sick days taken already this year will have the formula of minutes applied to them retroactively. This means that teachers may have already lost more than a single sick day from their bank for missing a single day of work. It would have been useful to have had this information at the beginning of the year so that teachers could have known the implications of phoning in sick on a particular day. After all, it’s been over a year since this contract was signed. Our union leadership had a whole year to warn us that these changes were coming. Instead we find out over a month after the policy has already come into affect.

The Oct 26th memo from the MTA raises a more fundamental problem. It states that many of the members have been expressing anger over this provision because “It seems like we are clock-punchers, not professionals.” The memo goes on to state that the MTA “fully understands” such anger. But if indeed it understands this anger, why did it recommend the membership adopt an agreement that actively contributes to the ongoing erosion of teachers’ status as professionals? More importantly, why did it withhold this information at the time members were voting on the agreement? Would an association representing the interests of doctors, lawyers or any other professional group accept such provisions?

In recent years corporate reformers in the US have been enormously effective in their attempts to de-professionalize teachers. More and more American teachers are being thought of as technicians rather than professionals. Why our union leaders would recommend to their members an agreement containing provisions that lead us in that very direction is beyond comprehension. Did they actually think that the possibility of using a bureaucratic loophole to scavenge an extra one tenth of a sick-bank day here or there would be worth having our status as professionals further eroded?

New System for Salary Deductions

Appendix XV of the agreement outlines a new system that allows principals to make pay deductions by the hour. Unbeknownst to most teachers, this appendix came into affect at the beginning of this school year. The third foot-note in this appendix indicates that “Any absence of less than one hour must be treated as a 60-minute absence”. This means that a teacher who is one minute late for any duty can now have an hour’s salary deducted. Again, it would have been helpful to have been informed about this provision before it came into effect, let alone at the time that we voted on the agreement.

The most sinister aspect of this appendix is that it violates protections that non-unionized workers enjoy from Quebec’s provincial labour standards. According to these standards employers must pay workers for any and all time worked. By allowing the employer to deduct an hour’s pay for less than an hour’s absence, this appendix violates that principle. In doing so it leaves teachers in Quebec’s English School Boards open to a violation of their fundamental rights as workers; a violation from which nearly all other non-unionized workers in Quebec are protected.

Next week check back for Part Two of this article focusing on the new system for the payment of year-end bonuses and the new system for department heads.

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