Student employees on campus feel undervalued, unsupported

Many student employees have recounted feeling undervalued by the University.

A Mount Allison student and former Residence Assistant (RA) to whom the Argosy has granted anonymity due to their continued relationship with Student Life listed a lack of clarity in RA job descriptions and a need for better support structures for residence staff as major problems with the position.

The student described not being taken seriously by Student Life. “The ambiguities in our contract and their unwillingness to listen to us talking about the things we are doing that aren’t in our job description is both patronizing and dangerous in its own right,” the student said.

During their time as an RA, the student dealt with issues such as reported sexual assault and attempted suicide. “We have to deal with it because there’s no one else to deal with it, [but] Student Life doesn’t back us up,” the student said. “We end up with huge responsibilities thrust upon us that aren’t in our job description, that we aren’t trained to do and that are often very traumatic.”

“I burned out from the trauma I was dealing with,” the student said. After going to Student Life for help, the student was given limited therapy and a note excusing academic deadlines for a few weeks. The support they offered, the student said, “wasn’t enough. It gave me a week or two for something that I’m still feeling a few years later.”   

Fourth-year student and assistant don (AD) of Windsor Emily Baker said that RAs are “undervalued, very much underpaid and extremely undertrained.” This year, Baker is the sole returning AD or RA on campus.

Due to student advocacy spearheaded by the Mount Allison Students’ Union (MASU), RA pay was increased by 25 per cent last year. However, there are fewer RAs on campus this year and AD pay was cut.

Baker and the student to whom the Argosy has granted anonymity said that the increase in RA pay was good, but not enough. “They just cut people so they could pay the other people a few hundred dollars more,” Baker said.

Do student employees have liability insurance? Izzy Francolini/Argosy
Do student employees have liability insurance? Izzy Francolini/Argosy

Despite the raise, Baker’s pay does not fully cover the cost of her room, let alone her mandatory meal plan. “When it comes to stress, financial stress is a big one,” Baker said. “It’s one of the major factors why people don’t stay in residence.”

MASU President Ryan Lebreton said that the MASU’s policy on RA compensation will continue to stand “at least until RAs get paid a comparable amount to RAs at other universities.”

The student to whom the Argosy has granted anonymity also takes issue with the lack of a clear liability insurance for student employees. Liability is in neither student employment job descriptions nor contracts.

“When previous RAs asked Student Life [about liability insurance], we couldn’t get a straight answer,” the student said.

Last year, the student filed a freedom of information request. “We still don’t know what liability insurance we have, and our suspicion, because they can’t give us a straight answer, is that maybe we actually don’t have any,” the student said.

Other students also listed problems related to liability issues and working as teaching assistants (TAs).

Fourth-year student Josh Johnson, who worked as the MASU ombudsperson to the University last year and as a TA himself, said that some of his friends, chemistry TAs, were working with contaminated mercury. Even though using dangerous chemicals is part of their jobs as TAs, these students do not have liability insurance.

Johnson also mentioned wage inconsistency across departments as a problem. While some English TAs are paid more than minimum wage, this is not the case for most science TAs.

Johnson said that TA positions for some departments, such as biology, involve hours of online training that are often unpaid.

Another issue, Johnson said, is the lack of grievance mechanisms for student employees. Students must go through the MASU if they have an employment issue. Because the MASU is not a labour union, “it hinders the ability to actually resolve situations, because [students] don’t have legal basis as equal parties,” he said.

Johnson also filed a freedom of information request on the number of sexual harassment and assault grievances through employee unions at Mt. A, which mainly include the Mount Allison Faculty Association (MAFA). “There were a considerable number of unionized employee grievances,” he said.

Johnson said that because student employees are the equivalent of sub-contractors to the university, there is no way for them to file such grievances without fear of repercussion, such as getting fired.

Third-year student and former residence academic mentor Hannah Mackellar said that the academic mentor position lacks a clear job description. Last year, Mackellar said, this led to a significant number of academic mentors feeling they had the power to tell students they might have a learning disability.

According to Mackellar, this was probably a result of their training on the subject. “It was a significant problem,” she said. “If someone was struggling in class, they felt it was okay to tell students they might have a learning disability.”

Johnson expressed frustration with the University for not spending part of the grant it received from the provincial and federal governments on bettering work environments and increasing the wages of student employees. “When we’re having that big influx of money, [improving student employee wages] is not that much money in the grand scheme of things. This isn’t a big fight that they’re picking,” he said. “Employees who are unionized don’t have to deal with a lot of the issues students are currently dealing with.”

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