Staff in the Department of Physics maintain morale by joking about the ever-growing dust bunnies in the stairwells of Stirling Hall. Equipped with personal Swiffer Sweepers, staff have taken working conditions into their own hands.
With over 10 years at Queen’s, Undergraduate Program Assistant (Physics, Engineering Physics, & Astronomy) Melissa Balson has watched working conditions change for the worse.
“I’ve watched as we’ve taken on more students, but our staff complement has either stayed the same or shrunk,” Balson said in an interview with The Journal.
Balson and her colleagues were left scrambling after a lab technician left her position over the summer and the Faculty of Arts and Science denied hiring a replacement for this academic year. Lab technicians prepare laboratories for students’ learning activities, which is an integral part of a physics education.
With a smaller team, Balson doesn’t know how they’re going to fill in the gaps for students.
“This is a position that has existed as long as I’ve known this place to be here, and I honestly don’t know what we’re going to do. It makes me so mad. The decision is being made by someone in the faculty office who has no clue what goes on at the department level. I really think we’re just seen as numbers,” Balson said.
Balson is a Queen’s alumni, having graduated with a sociology degree in 2000. Twenty-two years later, Balson was awarded the Michael Condra Outstanding Student Service Award for her service to current Queen’s students. She stays at Queen’s for the students.
“We love students, and that’s why most of us stay. It makes us so sad we can’t help students to the best of our abilities because we don’t have the time,” Balson said.
Despite being recognized for her hard work, the award doesn’t change the day-to-day circumstances for staff. The platitudes coming from the senior administration, while appreciated, don’t do enough to compensate staff wages or support strained and overworked departments.
Queen’s employed 6,229 staff as of November 1, 2022, with 2,824 positions being funded through the University’s operating budget. With the $62.8 million deficit facing Queen’s, new measures to keep the institution financially stable have put pressure on staff.
Understanding where the funding for positions comes from contributes to the Physics Department’s problem. Research dollars are separate from the operating budget, creating a façade that departments have the resources to stay well-staffed.The Department of Physics is separate from Queen’s McDonald Astroparticle Physics Institute, which is often conflated with the department’s funding when assesing the operating budget.
There are five full-time employees in the department of physics serving approximately 450 undergraduate students enrolled in majors offered by the department. On top of that, the department offers first-year courses with hundreds of students across faculties, which poses an additional administrative burden.
“We have a lot of students who come through our doors,” Balson said.
The Faculty of Arts and Science accounts for 43 per cent of the University’s $62.8 million deficit, according to a budget report. Recommendations for minimizing financial fallout included not renewing expiring term administrative staff positions and implementing a hiring freeze for staff. An update to staff from the faculty at the end of September suggested exceptions could be made for academic-facing positions, since staff in these positions interact directly with students and contribute to the University’s teaching and learning initiatives.
The report suggested the Faculty of Arts and Science streamline the administration of online courses, with departments administering online and in-person courses. The Faculty Office is turning to consolidating student support services for distance, undergraduate, and graduate students, looking to maximize efficiency in their existing organizational structure.
As support staff and academic assistants at Queen’s scramble to get the work done, United Steel Workers (USW) 2010 President Kelly Orser warns University management may use their efforts against them. With no end date for the hiring freeze, department staff are setting a precedent for working at lower staffing levels.
“If a unit somehow can manage the tasks, the duties, and still operate efficiently with less staff, than we may end up with less steel workers working,” Orser said in an interview with The Journal.
Orser fears the University is hiring casual, temporary workers in lieu of filling steelworkers’ positions. Casual positions don’t have to be publicly posted as vacant positions, which makes it harder for Orser to keep track of what’s going on. Over the past two months, Queen’s lists having filled seven steelworker positions.
For approximately 15 years, staffing has become very top-heavy in the sense that hiring isn’t thinning out for positions at the top of the pyramid. In fact, the number of senior leadership positions is increasing, Orser said. The University appointed two new senior leadership roles prior to the onset of the hiring freeze. Queen’s posted a six-figure salary position for the Principal’s Partnership Liason in September, which is a non-academic-facing role that facilitates and maintains relationships between Queen’s and its largest donors.
In a now locked Reddit post from the summer, many Queen’s staff mentioned they feel wages and preferable working conditions are reserved for management, including the ability to work remotely. Orser heard of incidents where steelworkers are required to come to campus while management stays home.
“There’s a lot of steelworkers required to come in to keep that unit up and running, with no manager on site often. That can be problematic in a lot of ways,” Orser said. “From an interpersonal relationship and workplace balance, in terms of nurturing, good, healthy managerial and employee relations. It’s not always well received by workers, and it’s often not well received by steelworkers.”
Steelworkers are afraid, Orser admitted. While she does what she can to provide workers with support—including submitting complaints on workers’ behalf—steelworkers fear that submitting grievances make them not be perceived as team players.
“We can’t force someone to put a grievance. All we can do is support them, and we do have steelworkers that we support for a very long time—we meet with them regularly. They’ve never once pressure put in a grievance because they’re just so afraid,” Orser said.
The growing unease amongst Queen’s staff was evident over the summer when Queen’s unions united at a rally on campus in June. Frustrated with the chronic understaffing, the rally was well-attended by members of the custodial department.
“In the custodial department, the hiring freeze means we’re going to be taking on more responsibilities,” caretaker Jason Herrington told The Journal at the June rally. “We already have a very hard time to recruit enough people to get the work done. The workloads are tremendous, mainly because of the low wages.”
Herrington claims he’s been approached by professors in the Bioscience Complex because their labs aren’t being cleaned regularly.
“[Labs are] supposed to be done every other day. We’re looking at weeks, sometimes months that they’re not getting done. It’s a huge health and safety issue for the students,” Herrington added. Queen’s divides custodial staff into two groups: custodians and caretakers.
Caretakers are paid significantly less than custodians, despite doing the same work. Many caretakers at Queen’s are new immigrants or women, CUPE 229 President Steve Senechal told The Journal.
“When wages aren’t fair and equitable, staff are spread thin and attracting new talent becomes more difficult—resulting in poor maintenance of building systems, dirtier buildings, and poor air quality, which affects a student’s ability to do their best work,” Senechal wrote in a statement to The Journal.
Unable to provide attractive wages, understaffing is a “chronic problem” for trades and food services positions, Senechal explained. He fears understaffing is impacting the health and safety of students on campus, from overflowing garbage to poor air quality in lecture halls.
“We continue to bring forth these issues to management’s attention and have organized along with other unions on campus into a Unity Council, putting on the University to do the right thing and pay their workers fair and equitable pay with real wage increases to keep up with the rising cost of living, so we can continue to provide quality services for students, faculty, and staff,” Senechal wrote.
In the spring of 2022, Queen’s employees were asked to share their perspectives on their workplace through the Employee Experience Survey. The survey received over 3,800 responses on 42 indicators.
A Queen’s press release reported over 80 per cent of respondents felt safe on campus, their job expectations were clear, and the team was respectful. Data from the survey was processed by Metrics@Work and reports were sent to units in the fall of 2022.
According to the Queen’s Human Resources Strategic Plan, empowering people is an important pillar for employment goals at Queen’s, but the details are murky. The 2022 plan, presented by Steven Millan, retired Associate Vice-Principal (Human Resources), centres around people and their wellbeing. The University has yet to fill the position.
A Journal reporter contacted Metrics@Work on Sept. 6, and was made aware the data was still under review but was being sent to the University within the coming weeks. No comprehensive report of the survey results was ever made public.
The University denied The Journal’s request for an interview on staff’s working conditions and compensation. In a statement received by The Journal, Queen’s reaffirmed its commitment to staff empowerment.
“We have established processes and channels in place to address employment-based concerns that may arise. We strive to improve and maintain a positive work environment for our staff and faculty as we look to realize our strategy and fulfill our vision for the future,” Queen’s University said.
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