On Mar. 15, Sherri Ferris, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 229, received four different calls that staff needed to replace ceilings tiles and exit signs in residence buildings.
“I’m thinking—’Why are the exit signs down on a Tuesday morning?’,” Ferris said in an interview with The Journal.
CUPE 229 represents Queen’s trades, maintenance, grounds, custodial, and food service staff.
According to Ferris, Queen’s custodial staff have been on the frontlines throughout COVID-19 ensuring, cleanliness and hygiene—without proper personal protective equipment—for over 162 buildings on campus. Queen’s custodial services remains “understaffed.”
In 2019, the Ontario government passed Bill-124, which limits wage increases for workers in the public sector.
At that point, the University was paying staff a starting rate of $16.71 an hour. After two years of working, the rate increases to $17.05 an hour, and after five years of working, it rises to $18.49—Kingston’s standard living wage.
According to Ferris, the current tiered system—which was implemented in 2015 by the administration—and Bill-124 have left incoming workers with low pay and little to no benefits, resulting in understaffing problems.
“The University should be looking at increasing the cleaning staff […] but the wages here at the university are poverty wages, no matter which way we look at it,” Ferris said.
“No one wants to work for $15 an hour anymore, especially in our industry.”
Ferris added that some custodial staff use services like food banks and seek outside assistance for daycare needs, despite working for Queen’s.
It’s especially difficult to fill roles when staff are expected to work over 19 hours or take midnight shifts.
CUPE 229 has been advocating for members with lower salaries to get a raise. During a working group meeting, some have even asked if Queen’s might provide gift cards.
“I’m thinking to myself, I have people that are actually asking for gift cards as part of their wage, because they knew they couldn’t get more than a one per cent [raise],” Ferris said.
According to Jordan Morelli, president of Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA), senior administration has been made aware of these concerns.
“They’re paying poverty wages to full-time workers doing cleaning custodial services—it’s a disgrace,” Morelli said in an interview with The Journal.
“[The University] is very much aware of it, much of the situation is the result of a deliberate decision on their part […] They’ve gone through a tiered wage system where the new people get no benefits.”
In 2020-21, Queen’s saw a budget surplus of $144.8 million.
In an email sent to The Journal, Leah Wales, executive director of Housing and Ancillary Services, said the University has continued to invest in expanding the custodial team, even though the pandemic has impacted their ability to recruit for custodial roles.
“Our custodial staff are valued members of our residence team and their efforts contribute significantly to supporting a safe, healthy and respectful living and learning environment in residences,” she wrote.
Ferris said, while CUPE 229 is having ongoing discussions with the University, she hopes to raise awareness publicly as well.
“I’ve worked at the University for over 30 years, I have always been a proud cleaner,” Ferris said. “I have fought hard for a decent wage, more workers, and a better cleaning standard here.”
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