September 29, 2018 5:29 pm
Updated: October 1, 2018 8:51 pm

Parents say kids can’t attend school after support staff walk off job in Whitecourt

WATCH ABOVE: After two years of negotiating, support staff at Living Waters Catholic Schools walked off the job Friday. The majority of the workers are educational assistants. Quinn Ohler reports.

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Members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) who work as support staff in Living Waters Catholic Schools walked off the job Friday.

The group, with 120 employees in Whitecourt, Edson and Slave Lake, has been negotiating a new contract since 2016. They officially served strike notice last Monday and walked off the job Friday.

Both sides had been working with a mediator to reach an agreement.

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The move has left dozens of school children, many of whom have disabilities, without the specialized care they need in the classroom.

About half the employees who walked off the job were educational assistants (EAs) helping students in the classroom.

READ MORE: Alberta government reaches tentative 3-year deal with AUPE

Many parents chose to keep their children home Friday, hoping the job action will be resolved quickly.

Karli Wilson has two children who attend Ecole St. Joseph in Whitecourt.

“My daughter Ellie is in Grade 5 and is fully dependent on an aide,” Wilson said. “We have to keep her home now. We don’t have another option.

“They have put out ads to temporarily pay people to do these people’s jobs. Our problem is that our daughter is not good with transition. It takes her a really long time to warm up to someone and for this school division to think they could just put someone else in that position, they’re absolutely out to lunch.

“They don’t understand what these people mean to our school and our kids.”

“Our students’ education remains our priority and schools will remain open,” Jo-Anne Lanctot, superintendent of Living Waters CRD No. 42, said in a news release Friday.

“Living Waters has been working hard to make alternate arrangements to ensure that our students’ education and operation of our schools continues with minimal impact and disruption during this unfortunate choice by our AUPE support staff workers to strike.”

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“Our goal is always to reach a negotiated deal at the table but the employer has unfortunately forced us into this situation,” AUPE vice-president Rod Feland said.

“Support staff at Living Waters are simply asking for their employer to treat them fairly by properly compensating them for the very important work they do supporting our students.”

The group is seeking a pay increase and better working conditions in “larger classrooms,” along with improved scheduling.

“Some of these members have had to resort to using the food bank to support their families and make ends meet. Meanwhile the school board started 2016 with an operating surplus,” Feland added.

“Clearly, this doesn’t add up.

“I think that the board really needs to listen to these people and give them the $0.47-an-hour raise that they are asking for and give them stability in their job and let them know they are valued,” Wilson said. “They are the backbone of these schools. They are the backbone for my daughter. My daughter wouldn’t be able to attend a typical classroom without these people.

“I’m supporting these people 100 per cent,” Wilson said.

“It’s simple what they’re asking for. One of our aides has been working with the school division for over 18 years and hasn’t seen a raise in seven.

“They’re not doing it for the money; they’re doing it because they love these kids.

“There’s support staff in this community that are going to the food bank to top up because they’re not making enough — that’s just not fair,” Wilson said.

Members of AUPE who work at the six Living Waters schools include educational assistants, typists, custodians, secretaries, library clerks, maintenance workers and financial assistants.

It’s unclear how many students are affected by the job action.

“Living Waters will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates and information to parents through Synervoice and our website,” Lanctot said. “If parents have any questions specific to their child or program, we certainly encourage them to contact their child’s school and we would be happy to address any questions or concerns.”

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“Our members are dedicated to their work and to the students they support on a daily basis,” Feland said.

“When our members are treated with fairness and respect, everyone benefits, but especially the students who depend on their support. It’s time for Living Waters Catholic Schools to show they are invested in student success by ensuring support staff are treated fairly.”

On Monday, the union reported a 37-year employee was struck by vehicle while on the picket line that morning.

“Right now we know this member has some muscle injury,” Feland said in a news release. “We will continue to keep in contact with him and are thankful it appears he will make a full recovery.”

Alberta RCMP said they were aware of the picket line but had not been notified about a pedestrian being struck.

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