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In Conversation with AGSEM

The university has been receptive, but concerns remain

As McGill prepared to return to campus earlier this year, it became increasingly clear that guidelines given by the administration did not particularly favour the wishes of students and faculties. Several weeks into the semester, these concerns continue to develop. This is the fourth installment of the Daily’s recurring column exploring the relationship between McGill administration and the broader McGill community.

Graduate students are uniquely situated in university infrastructure: they are subject to exploitation from multiple fronts, as many of them are both students and employees. The Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM) was established in 1993 to advocate for the interests of such students. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, AGSEM has largely been occupied with pushing for fair compensation and safe working conditions.

Upon McGill’s transition to remote instruction in March of 2020, teaching assistants (TAs), invigilators, and graders had their positions eliminated or were required to work longer hours than their salary allowed for. Because final exams were no longer taking place in-person, invigilators lost their job; remote learning burdened TAs with helping professors navigate new technology, and this extra labour went unpaid. Last-minute changes to syllabi made the work of graders even more overwhelming and time-consuming than anticipated. AGSEM members are contracted to work a fixed number of hours, so this extra work meant stolen wages from employees. As the Daily previously reported, these developments exacerbated the already-precarious working conditions of graduate student employees.

While instructors had largely adjusted to remote learning by the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, graduate students continued to face barriers in receiving proper compensation. McGill’s adoption of Workday, a notoriously dysfunctional Human Resources program, prevented many student employees from receiving payment for over eight months. Employees have since received full pay, but the program is still frustrating to navigate, according to AGSEM President Mario Roy. However, the university has yet to make a reasonable offer to compensate AGSEM members who were affected by late payments, per Roy. This is in conflict with the Labour Standards Act, which stipulates that payments must be made within the first 30 days of an employee’s contract.

Interactions with Administration

In an interview with the Daily, Roy wrote that university administrators have generally been receptive to graduate workers’ concerns. Although administrators are open to hearing workers’ concerns, this does not mean that their concerns are effectively addressed: Roy pointed to AGSEM’s June open letter to administration, which urged a “precautionary approach” to on-campus learning. The letter demands that the university make masks mandatory, allow TAs to hold office hours online, and “to consider remote – or partially remote – delivery of classes in Fall 2021.” In response, the university told AGSEM that accommodating employees’ requests to work remotely would be up to individual employers, not the administration as a whole. In their August/September newsletter, AGSEM reported that some departments have decreased the number of hours in TA contracts, but the amount of work required of TAs has not decreased. This decrease in contracted hours could potentially result in TAs performing unpaid labour, as they are not compensated for work completed once they have surpassed their contracted hours. While AGSEM continues to advocate for safe, sanitary conditions for graduate employees, Roy wrote that the union is “happy that the situation seems to be under control.”

AGSEM sent another open letter to McGill’s Labour and Employee Relations department on October 27. The letter contains two motions approved in a General Assembly of the union: motion one includes a request that McGill continues to encourage vaccination, provide rapid testing equipment, improve ventilation, enforce social distancing, and include TAs on emails notifying classes of a positive case of COVID-19 in the classroom; motion two affirms that AGSEM supports a university vaccine mandate, with the alternative of regular rapid testing provided by McGill. While McGill has initiated a Rapid Testing Pilot Project, which allows asymptomatic students, faculty and staff to get tested, the university has not updated building ventilation or implemented a vaccine mandate.

In communication with administration, the entire population of graduate students is represented by the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), but AGSEM also works to voice student concerns in correspondence with McGill’s Labour and Employee Relations department. According to Roy, the union had regular meetings with administration at the beginning of the pandemic, but the frequency of these meetings has declined, which AGSEM members “denounce.” Additionally, the university has indicated that course instructors are in charge of COVID-19 regulations for employees. As such, graduate employees must take their concerns directly to the instructor they’re working with – Roy said that this puts them in a “vulnerable position because they can be afraid of losing their job.” This vulnerability may discourage employees from requesting accommodations, and Roy expressed concern that it “might prevent them from coming to the union to get support as well.”

Conditions as Precarious as Ever

While the pandemic has introduced concerns about sanitary conditions and remote instruction, Roy said that graduate employees have always had to push for fair conditions. Provost Christopher Manfredi’s August 29 memorandum insisted that instructors work on campus to ensure a high quality of pedagogy, but AGSEM continues to advocate for members who would feel more comfortable working remotely. Opposing this policy is potentially risky for employees, but Roy pointed out that this is the case for any policy: “The fear of losing their job opportunities for speaking out against any university policy has always been present for many of our members, if not all.” AGSEM has shared employees’ requests that the university “better enforce sanitary measures currently in place,” and that students in contact with TAs and invigilators be fully vaccinated. Roy also reminds members that anonymous disclosure “is always welcome and taken seriously.” In a later comment, Roy stated that AGSEM “will always fight for [their] members.”

Last year, COVID-19-related budget cuts led the university to defer the salary increase of some employees. Faculty contracts which ask TAs to work less contracted hours are a potential consequence of this – per Roy, AGSEM is working closely with affected TAs to ensure they are not compelled to work unpaid hours. Roy added that AGSEM is monitoring McGill job postings to “make sure that the university does not create another job contract paid much less than a TA to accomplish TA work.” Historically, such positions have come in the form of graders – in the 2020 Summer Semester, McGill opted to hire graders in lieu of TAs. Graders make about half as much as TAs, at $15.50 an hour as opposed to $29.33 an hour. 

General COVID-19-related Developments

The aforementioned Rapid Testing Pilot Project, launched on November 8, is available to asymptomatic students and staff; test results are available within 15-20 minutes, according to the Réseau de santé publique en santé au travail. Those who test positive are instructed to receive a PCR test from an authorized testing site. 

The university has also introduced a new requirement for indoor masking: individuals must replace their procedural masks after four hours of use, at which point masks are significantly less effective. Mask dispensers can be found at the front of most buildings on campus. Individuals who do not replace their mask after four hours will be considered a “medium or high-risk contact” for contact tracing purposes.

Importantly, everyone who comes to campus should complete McGill’s COVID-19 self-evaluation form. In an email to the McGill community, Associate Provost Christopher Buddle described this form as a “decision-tool to ensure you check your health status” prior to arriving on campus.