Montreal’s crossing guards are seeking a new collective agreement with the city, arguing that the federal government’s employment insurance reform has left them at a disadvantage. Crossing guards in the city have been without a contract since August 2011.
The changes to employment insurance made by the federal government, in place since January 2013, require frequent claimants to undertake a “reasonable job search” to continue receiving benefits, and to accept any job for which they are qualified that offers at least 70 per cent of their previous wages. Seasonal workers, such as crossing guards, typically apply for employment insurance during the time that they do not work.
With the changes, Montreal’s approximately 650 crossing guards risk losing their unemployment benefits, as they do not work during the summer or the winter break while school is not in session.
“Now, they will have to actively seek work, even during the [winter] holiday season, to remain eligible,” Carole Bouchard, representative at the Canadian Union of Public Employees, told The Daily in French.
Moustapha, a crossing guard who works in western Montreal, has experienced the effects of the reform firsthand. “Last year, I didn’t get unemployment benefits during the summer. Usually we have it, but this year, I didn’t even submit an application, as I knew it would be complicated,” he told The Daily in French.
The crossing guards are requesting that Montreal’s mayor Denis Coderre grant them six paid vacation days during the holiday season, as is already the case for other city employees and for the majority of crossing guards across Quebec. This would allow them to evade the requirement to seek work during the winter holidays.
“We’re asking the employer to offer crossing guards paid statutory holidays, as it does for all the other salaried workers at the City of Montreal, to save them from [an] active job search during the winter holidays,” Bouchard told The Daily.
While negotiations are underway, the union’s demands have been met with indifference. “[Our request] has been refused. The employer says that as long as the government provides [employment insurance], it doesn’t have to give anything to the crossing guards,” added Bouchard.
For Fernande Tremblay, president of the Montreal union of crossing guards, these are reasonable demands. “We’re not asking Mr. Coderre for the moon. We wish to preserve our job and our income in spite of the restrictions on employment insurance. We’re asking for a little more acknowledgement of our work, which has children’s security at stake,” she wrote in French in a press release.
Coderre has refused to provide details on the negotiations. “We’ll make our position known at the negotiation table, as we do not wish to negotiate in public,” he wrote in French in an email sent to La Presse.
Finding a job during the summer is difficult for crossing guards, who are paid $14.62 an hour and are on average 58 years old. “The problem is that we’re only unemployed during the summer vacation – that’s barely over two months,” noted Moustapha.
During the school year, working a second job is inconvenient because of their irregular schedule.
“They’re paid four hours per day, but they’re busy during the entire day; they have to be at their crossings in the morning, at noon, and in the afternoon. So they cannot have another job,” Bouchard explained.
As they are a part of the Montreal police force, crossing guards are classified as an essential service, and cannot go on strike. They must therefore use alternative pressure tactics to convey their message.
“Maybe we’ll do [similar to] the security guards in the metro – wear a vest [dossard] – without endangering the security of anyone, very basic things,” said Moustapha.