McGill Owes Its Student Workers Fair Pay

Workday issues are not “isolated technical incidents” but signs of systemic failure

McGill’s new HR system, Workday, has caused a number of problems since its introduction in August 2020, including delays in the hiring process, pay stubs that do not comply with the Labour Standards Act, and most prominently, overdue payments for many teaching assistants (TAs). McGill is not the first university to have issues with the software – Brock University and the University of Texas reported the same problems when they transitioned their HR operations to the Workday software. McGill did not consult with student labour unions during this transition, and for student employees such as TAs, graders, and invigilators, complications with the system have resulted in an increased workload, aggravating their already precarious working conditions.

This situation is unacceptable, especially given the conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to problems with the Workday software, TAs have faced barriers to completing their job functions during remote learning. Throughout the fall semester, the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) filed a number of grievances with the school regarding issues with accessing and using technologies necessary to teaching, including Zoom Pro, myCourses, and McGill email addresses. These problems have resulted in TAs being unable to perform their jobs, and have forced some to pay for their own Zoom Pro subscriptions. TAs are not the only ones affected by these issues – when educators are unable to fully perform their jobs, students’ quality of education is also impacted.

According to a press release issued by AGSEM in December 2020, the University has not provided a timeline for when the issues surrounding Workday will be resolved, though the school has confirmed that it will not consider changes to the software itself until after the Winter 2021 term. McGill has been passing off issues with Workday as “isolated technical incidents,” but the numbers tell a different story. During the Fall 2020 semester, over 460 TAs were not paid in the first 30 days of their contract, and over 180 remained unpaid within their first 60 days. As of December 2020, many Fall semester TAs still had not received their first pay cheque. An anonymous professor told the Montreal Gazette that, “because most of the jobs going unpaid are filled by students with limited means, some faculty members have taken to paying them out of their own savings so they can cover rent and food.” Delays in payment have also resulted in some TAs working additional jobs off-campus while continuing to work and study on-campus.

Even prior to the onset of the pandemic, one-third of McGill’s TAs could not afford healthcare – this is especially concerning now, given that mandatory in-person classes during the Winter 2021 semester have put academic employees at risk of contracting COVID-19. In an open letter issued on November 2, 2020, the McGill Biology Grad Student Association stated that, “as TAs have not been promised an online alternative to guarantee the income they rely on, they are presented with the choice between performing in-person TA duties while potentially getting sick or facing financial shortfall.” However, as the last semester has shown, this is a false choice – TAs are risking illness without even the guarantee of payment. By requiring TAs to teach in-person classes, McGill is putting their health and lives at risk. The University must take the personal safety and financial security of their employees seriously and implement stricter measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

Mario Roy, president of AGSEM, told the Daily  that the association believes “TAs have probably received or will soon receive all their overdue pays,” but that McGill has not provided any concrete proof of this. In November 2020, McGill instated some “financial relief measures” for still-unpaid employees in the form of a tuition deferral until January 6, 2021; a reversal on any interest charged on Fall 2020 tuition fees; and an interest-free loan of $1,500 “made available via credit to their student account.” These measures are insufficient – McGill must also compensate unpaid employees for the stress induced by the issues with Workday. AGSEM has requested additional compensation for those who received overdue payments, according to Roy. While McGill has promised the union that the school will draft a proposal for this, it has not provided a date by which it will do so.

McGill’s response to the problems with Workday is a symptom of the systemic exploitation of vulnerable workers. Even if the University could not have avoided the problems with the software, McGill’s continued disregard for these issues and for paying TAs indicates that student labour is undervalued. The current issues with Workday and mandatory in-person classes are just two examples of McGill’s continued tendency to ignore the concerns of teaching assistants.

If you are a teaching assistant or other employee who has faced problems with Workday, your McGill email, myCourses, or Zoom Pro, AGSEM can help. For more information and solutions to specific problems and a detailed explanation of your rights under the AGSEM collective agreement, visit https://www.agsem.ca/workday. If you work as an academic casual employee (including markers, graders, tutors, note-takers, demonstrators, facilitators, mentors, course assistants, student assistants, and placement exam administrators), you can unionize with AGSEM by filling out a form here.

McGill must address the concerns of its employees. The McGill Daily stands with AGSEM in demanding compensation for all employees who faced overdue payments, the creation of a task force to resolve Workday issues, and a clear timeline for the resolution of HR management issues. To express your concerns to McGill and hold the University accountable to their new collective agreement with AGSEM, you can email Angela Campbell, Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies), at angela.campbell@mcgill.ca and Melanie MacArthur (Administrative Coordinator responsible for union correspondence, grievances filed with CRT, and administrative support to members) at melanie.macarthur@mcgill.ca. To stay updated on the situation, follow AGSEM’s Facebook page and spread awareness by sharing their posts.