Wanted: cleaning staff for Maritime schools
HALIFAX -- After receiving special COVID-19 funding from the provinces, school boards and centres for education throughout the Maritimes are on a hiring spree to fill custodial positions.
School caretaker Bill Alguire has been keeping schools clean for 20 years and says this year has been unlike any other.
"Since school opened, there have only been two days where I haven't worked a double," he says.
Since extra cleaning and disinfecting protocols were put in place for schools because of the pandemic, Alguire says it's not unusual for him to work from 7 a.m. to midnight most days.
Alguire is also the president of NSUPE Local 2, which represents hundreds of caretakers and custodians working in the Halifax area.
He's heard from many members who are "working off their feet," often missing their lunchbreaks to get all the work done that is needed.
Alguire says years of provincial budget cutbacks and government austerity have made the situation more difficult.
"Now we find ourselves in the pandemic," he says, "and we don't have the staff that we once did.
The spokesperson for the Halifax Regional Centre for Education says it currently has more than 130 custodial positions available right now.
Doug Hadley says the HRCE did hire workers over the summer to handle the additional cleaning measures, but the work was largely being done by contractors or casual workers.
"The idea now is to offer all of those positions to bargaining unit members, but also to offer them to any individuals who are out there," says Hadley.
The HRCE postings close Wednesday, Sept. 30th, but Hadley says more may be posted later, especially if positions are filled within union ranks.
The HRCE isn't the only one hiring.
The province of Prince Edward Island funded 62 extra full-time cleaners for its schools. A spokesperson with the province says all those positions have been filled.
In New Brunswick, a spokesperson for the Education and Early Childhood Department could not provide exact numbers of custodial staff already hired or needed in the province, saying each school district would have the most recent recruitment figures.
But Tara Chislett added in an email statement that "the COVID-19 pandemic has increased pressure on recruitment efforts and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has worked in collaboration with districts to address increased staffing requirements to support the Return to School plan."
The statement also acknowledges "gaps" in the system, "particularly for casual employees."
The Nova Scotia union which represents caretakers and custodians in schools outside of Halifax says employers are "scrambling" to hire workers.
Grant Dart is CUPE's coordinator for the education sector. He says that scramble could have been avoided if staff had been given more time to plan for the return to classes during the pandemic.
He says a lack of adequate notice means the extra funding provided by the province isn't being used for areas which need it most, because no one knew just what going back to school would look like.
"The minister of education announced that there would be $40 million dollars for custodial staff, ECEs and lunchroom supervisors," he says. "The problem that occurred behind that is we had not seen what our new reality in the school board sectors looked like."
"So what we have asked the Department, and the RCEs and the French board to do, is to come back to the table, with our members that are actually on the ground, and look and see if there is a better way that those [funds] could be allocated to provide the proper coverage."
Alguire just hopes more staff are hired soon, to relieve the pressure on workers.
"What's gonna happen when we no longer can do this, because we burn out?" he says.
Something he hopes won't happen – as caretakers and custodians do important work behind the scenes to help keep schools safe during the pandemic.