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SFU underpays teaching assistants for vacation, says union

Simon Fraser University sits at the top of Burnaby Mountain outside Vancouver, and at least according to one publication, it's also a peak performer as one of the nation's top employers. In a list of best bosses published in the Globe and Mail last fall, the university was rated one of the top 100 employers in Canada.

But the union that represents teaching assistants at the school challenges that judgment, alleging that SFU is an employer that tries to pay junior teaching and marking staff lower holiday pay than the law requires.

"You can't claim to be the best while providing less than the minimum standard," said Colin Tether, chief steward for the Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) at the university, referring to university's position that it can pay teaching assistants and other TSSU members four per cent holiday pay rather than the minimum six per cent currently required by provincial the Employment Standards Act.

Tether said that labour law changes brought in by the BC Liberals make it possible for employers to enforce agreements that allow for benefits below the minimums set by legislation.

He said that recent developments such as TSSU's current grievance filed in April concerning the vacation pay issue, and a recent Labour Relations Board decision finding SFU to be bargaining in bad faith with CUPE employees, show the university isn't an exceptional employer.

Jonathan Driver, SFU's vice president academic, sees the matter differently.

He said the university and the union recently concluded negotiations for a new collective agreement, and that the union had the opportunity to discuss vacation pay during those negotiations.

"We believe that we comply fully with all provincial employment standards. We do not comment publicly on grievances that have not been resolved. The LRB decision did not concern TSSU negotiations, and relates to an ongoing negotiation with a different union," Driver told the Tyee by email.

The union provided the Tyee with a spreadsheet of salary increases given to top SFU administrators between 2005 and 2010, which indicates that at least one key administrative staff member received a pay increase of 85 per cent during that period, with other administrative staff seeing their pay increase between 14 and 70 per cent. Unionized TSSU workers saw their pay packets increase by under 10 per cent during those years.

Driver responded to Tyee questions about the differences between increases in top administrators' compensation and raises for TAs in an email on May 31, suggesting that while the numbers used in the spreadsheet might be accurate, he suspects that the analysis is flawed.

"For example," he wrote, "some of the changes reported in my own compensation reflect the fact that I moved from one position (dean) to another (vice-president) during the period under analysis."

Driver also noted that administrators who return to professorial duties receive a year's paid leave on return to allow them to rebuild teaching and research programs and that sometimes that future pay is pro-rated into reported annual income for an administrator, which could distort the size of reported salary.

Derek Sahota, spokesperson for TSSU, told the Tyee by email May 31:

"The publicly available facts are clear; SFU's senior administrators have seen their salaries grow while front-line teaching staff have languished. SFU needs to live up to its motto and engage and respect its workers. SFU can start by paying its workers the vacation pay they are owed."

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at

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