Precarious work in BC’s University sector

Sarah St John | CUPE Research

A new CUPE research report shows that work in BC’s university sector has become more precarious over time. The report, completed in January by Edward Kroc, a CUPE member contracted by the union to produce the report, draws on information from six CUPE locals at three universities – Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia, and University of Victoria.

Precarious work, as opposed to secure work, is associated with unpredictable hours and schedules, and little guarantee of a stable income. Under these conditions individuals face the stress of having to plan their lives around this uncertainty.

Temporary and part-time work is common among teaching staff in the university sector, in part because teaching assistants are simultaneously students. However, temporary and part-time work is no longer confined solely to the teaching locals.

The report explains how that the proportion and absolute numbers of full-time appointments have decreased overtime, while at the same time part-time and casual appointments have increased.

Overusing casual employment

According to CUPE university collective agreements casual work is intended to supplement regular continuing and sessional labour when necessary. Casual employment opportunities do not require job postings and have a duration of less than three months. In reality casual work is being used well beyond this limited scope. Overuse of casual work is concerning as casual workers are often unable to accrue seniority, have limited access to benefits, and have little protection from arbitrary dismissal.

A large proportion of CUPE members are in casual appointments, for example, 25 per cent outside workers at University of Victoria (CUPE 917). Of these casual employees a growing number are in ‘excessive’ casual appointments. For example, seventeen per cent of inside workers at University of British Columbia (CUPE 2950) have been employed for longer than three months and have worked more than 75 hours per month.

Casual employment is now routinely used as a way for part-time employees to pick up extra casual hours. This allows the employer to avoid increasing the number of continuing part-time appointments. Some departments, including the daycare and bookstore at University of Victoria, consistently employ casual workers year round. The frequency and duration of casual appointments suggests these positions could be replaced by continuing part-time positions.
However, the employers are opting for casual appointments as they have fewer obligations to the worker.

Collecting and Tracking Data
Getting a complete picture of how often casual appointments are misused remains a challenge and requires diligent data collection and analysis. In an ideal situation CUPE locals would have collective agreement language allowing access from employers to triannual snapshots of their membership. This would include information on job classification (regular, sessional, temporary or casual), position, department of hire, and number of hours worked. Tools can be developed for CUPE locals who want to track and analyse the use of casual appointments. A better understanding of how casual appointments are used can help locals to enforce the collective agreement limits or develop collective
agreement language to address the situation.