For TAs, Casual Employees, Invigilators, and Graders, COVID-19 Has Exacerbated Already Uncertain Working Conditions

“Paying precarious employees, in McGill’s eyes, is just not worth it,” Graduate Student Says

For many graduate students, casual non-academic employees (e.g., Floor Fellows, event staffers, etc.), invigilators, and graders, the pandemic and McGill’s transition to online learning have exacerbated their precarious working conditions. While the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) has long been collecting stories and conducting research on the poor working conditions that their members have experienced, many who are involved in the union have told the Daily that in recent weeks, the situation has gotten much worse.

Unsafe Working Conditions

Jessica Rose, chair of AGSEM’s Teaching Assistant (TA) Bargaining Committee, stated that not only have graduate students been asked to perform further unpaid labour, but some have also been told to risk their safety and physical health by coming to campus.

“The Dean’s office in Medicine had to send an email to the entire faculty because [principal investigators] were demanding that their grad students come into the lab during the first week of the shutdown,” Rose explained. “Part of the problem here is surely the use of vague phrases like ‘ramped down’ instead of concrete and clear directives, but another part of it is a lack of care for graduate students’ wellbeing.” Rose also stated that professors in the Faculty of Medicine had also initially refused to pay their casual workers.

Graduate Students’ Precarious Labour 

Jordan*, a graduate student who works as a TA and requested anonymity, echoed these sentiments.

“We’re […] told to keep working, even with closures, even with a pandemic. I’m waiting on my COVID-19 test, and I’m supposed to keep grading as normal…and it’s hard,” they explained.

They’re especially worried about the work that TAs have been asked to do without pay. This issue existed long before the pandemic – if a TA has completed the number of hours stipulated in their contract, they are still expected to continue working until the end of the semester, often without additional pay. (In 2017, a survey conducted by AGSEM found that nearly half of TAs worked more hours than were stipulated in their contract, and 86 per cent were not paid for this additional labour.) With the transition to online learning, extra work can manifest itself in more time spent on setting up new assignments or providing feedback on additional work from students, among other unexpected changes.

“We’re […] told to keep working, even with closures, even with a pandemic. I’m waiting on my COVID-19 test, and I’m supposed to keep grading as normal…and it’s hard”
Jordan*, a graduate student who works as a TA

“I now have to grade 65 6-page essays online,” Jordan said. “I’m a disabled student, and that’s a lot of screen time now (I don’t have access to the students’ hard copies), so this is taking longer than usual. What’s going to happen there?”

Their interactions with faculty members haven’t been encouraging, either. “I’ve had professors ask me why I can’t just live on $15,000/year,” they added. “There’s no care, there’s no solidarity.”

Rose, who is a TA in History and Classical Studies in addition to her role as Chair of the TA Bargaining Committee, has also been asked to do additional labour. “I used to be paid three hours per week for three conference sections,” she explained. “Now I have to evaluate a written assignment from each student individually – this takes a lot longer than three hours.”

Although Rose stated that the professor she works for is “very supportive” and ensures an even workload, this has not been the case across the board. “Other TAs who have approached the union say that their professors have told them ‘you have to do this work no matter what, even if you aren’t getting paid,’” she wrote in an email.

“Other TAs who have approached the union say that their professors have told them ‘you have to do this work no matter what, even if you aren’t getting paid.'”
Jessica Rose, TA and Chair of AGSEM’s TA Bargaining Committee

Travis Chen, a PhD candidate in Biology, shares similar concerns. “In my department, the minimum funding (Stipends, awards, TAships) for a graduate student is below the Quebec poverty line,” Chen explained. “Most graduate students are just getting this minimum, some even less.” In 2019, the Institut de recherche et d’informations socioéconomiques (IRIS) found that the poverty line in Montreal was $27,205 – or $19,714 after taxes. While it differs across various departments and faculties, the latest figures provided by the Biology department at McGill indicate a minimum funding amount of $15,900, which includes “tuition and fee subsidies, a stipend and teaching assistantships.”

However, according to Chen, there aren’t enough TA positions in the first place, and many students supplement their income through invigilating, tutoring, or other jobs outside of McGill. “Most graduate students are living paycheque to paycheque,” he added, “[and] this financial insecurity is a major component of the graduate student mental health crisis.”

Jordan echoed these sentiments, writing, “Grad students are stressed and overworked in the best of times. […] Part of precarity is not knowing [what support the University will provide], not being able to plan: McGill has refused to address that issue, or simply administrators don’t care.”

“In my department, the minimum funding (Stipends, awards, TAships) for a graduate student is below the Quebec poverty line; most graduate students are just getting this minimum, some even less.” – Travis Chen, TA in Biology

This lack of knowledge is especially worrying for graduate students who rely on TA positions for their income. Chen added, “Everything is in limbo right now, and it’s causing a lot of anxiety for the grad students that I’ve talked to, that is, on top of the anxiety of not being able to do lab work while McGill’s ‘Graduate or you’re gone’ clock is still, presumably, counting down.”

McGill’s policy for graduate students states that those who are enrolled full-time in a masters program must complete their degree in three years or less, while those who are doctoral candidates have six or seven years to complete their degree. If they can not finish the degree in that time frame, they will be withdrawn from McGill, lose their student status, and not be able to access McGill facilities or support. Those who are international students will also be required to leave Canada.

Invigilators and Graders at McGill

The financial precarity experienced by graduate students is shared by several other forms of employment in the McGill community. Many of those who spoke to the Daily emphasized that invigilators – those who supervise exams during finals season – are now out of a job.

“Most invigilators work at the gym and were hired [in late February or early March] but not given a schedule yet, and McGill refuses to pay them,” Rose explained. “Many of the invigilators I have worked with are international students, many of them have children, and many are Master’s students without any guarantee of funding.”

“Most invigilators work at the gym and were hired [in late February or early March] but not given a schedule yet, and McGill refuses to pay them.” – Jessica Rose

Graders have also experienced especially uncertain working conditions. Raf Finn, the Unionization Drive Committee Chair at AGSEM, told the Daily via email that graders are now being expected to evaluate more assignments, more quickly. However, he emphasized, graders were dealing with a lack of support and unfair wages even before the transition to online learning.

“Since McGill is the only university in Québec not to see its graders represented by a labour association, this has meant that any department or faculty which chose to prioritize its bottom line had been able to hire someone to grade without a fair wage, sufficient training, or oversight (academic, labour-related, or otherwise),” Finn said. To negotiate fairer hiring practices, AGSEM is planning to represent graders in a new bargaining unit, alongside other academic workers.

Budget-cutting Measures

As the upcoming Summer semester begins online, McGill is attempting to limit the costs associated with employing academic workers. “In some cases, like in the Faculty of Arts,” Finn stated, “budgets for the summer term are being systematically shifted to pay for graders instead of TAs, a cost-cutting strategy rooted in lowering institutional costs at the expense of the working conditions of graders, course lecturers, and other academic support workers.” This difference in pay can be seen in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, where graduate students hired as TAs are paid $29.33 per hour, while those employed as graders receive nearly half that amount – $15.50 per hour.

“Budgets for the summer term are being systematically shifted to pay for graders instead of TAs, a cost-cutting strategy rooted in lowering institutional costs at the expense of the working conditions of graders, course lecturers, and other academic support workers.”
Raf Finn, Unionization Drive Committee Chair at AGSEM

These changes are arriving alongside further budget-cutting measures at McGill. As 15 per cent of international applicants to Canadian universities are expected to be lost due to COVID-19, the University has examined several scenarios in which various amounts of revenue may be forfeited in the coming academic year. In the best case scenario, Quebec enrolment will remain stable, with a 5 per cent decline in new non-Quebec Canadian enrolment and a 10 per cent decline in new international student enrolment. In these conditions, McGill would lose $10 million in revenue. In the worst case scenario, there will be a 10 per cent decline in total enrolment, resulting in $61 million lost. Even in the second worst case scenario, where non-Quebec Canadian and international student enrolment decreases by 10 per cent, the University would lose $39 million.

In an email to staff and students on Thursday, April 30, Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Christopher Manfredi stated that, in addition to the suspension of tenure-track and contract academic hiring, further administrative and support staff hiring will be suspended for the time being.

The total amount spent on administrators’ salaries in the 2018-19 academic year exceeded $10,000,000.

Manfredi also announced a freeze on salary increases for all senior administrators and Deans. McGill’s highest paid administrators in the 2018-19 academic year were Vice-Principal of University Advancement Marc Weinstein, who made nearly $600,000; Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier, who made approximately $550,000; and Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine David H. Eidelman, who made around $500,000. The total amount spent on administrators’ salaries in 2018-19 exceeded $10,000,000.

Issues with the Administration

AGSEM has run into issues with the McGill administration several times. While the union reached a tentative resolution with the administration, ending negotiations over the new TA Collective Agreement, the vote to approve the updated agreement has been put on hold due to the inability to conduct online voting. (The previous agreement expired in 2018.) Additionally, as Rose explained, the administration refused to budge on certain critical bargaining mandates, such as healthcare indemnity and paid leave for students with dependents.

She also told the Daily via email that, during the transition to online learning, McGill denied AGSEM representation in the planning process. “[They] insisted that workers should let Human Resources be our ‘voice at the table,’ and told us to use the general inquiries email on their coronavirus website,” she explained.

“The amount administrators at McGill make is huge – as is the amount that the university spends on self-promotion and perks for admins. Paying precarious employees, in McGill’s eyes, is just not worth it.” – Jordan*

This frustration with the administration was shared by other employees of McGill that the Daily spoke to, and Jordan expressed particular concern over the difference in salary between TAs (along with other precarious employees) and that of McGill senior management.

“The amount administrators at McGill make is huge – as is the amount that the university spends on self-promotion and perks for admins,” they remarked. “Paying precarious employees, in McGill’s eyes, is just not worth it.”

*Name has been changed to preserve anonymity.