As striking school support workers in HRM wrap up another week on the picket line, one educational program assistant (EPA) has written a letter to Premier Tim Houston pleading with him to intervene.

Tylor McDuff began working as an EPA almost 20 years ago. He hasn’t wanted to do anything else since.

“I used to want to be a teacher before I went down a different path,” McDuff said in an interview late Thursday. 

“So the chance to be a part of a school and be a part of a classroom and be a part of educating kids? I remember thinking when I started ‘You’re never going to take this away from me.’ And I was really good at it.”

A man with sunglasses on his head and a whistle in his mouth stands in front of a school holding a pink sign that says 'Fair deal now for school support.'
EPA Tylor McDuff in front of the Halifax school where he worked up until the strike began May 10. Credit: Contributed

About 1,800 Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) EPAs, support workers, and pre-primary teachers went on strike May 10. Although he’s trying to remain positive as the labour dispute continues, McDuff said it hasn’t been easy. Especially in light of the fact that no further talks are in the works.

‘What really hurts the most’

“None of us want this. We really just are floored that there aren’t even conversations,” McDuff said. 

“That’s what really hurts the most. Not that we’re not getting raises. Not that the offer is so small. But that we just aren’t even worth continuing to talk about.”

After speaking to other striking workers, a disheartened McDuff crafted a letter outlining his own thoughts and some of those conveyed to him by fellow strikers. On Thursday he sent it to the premier. 

“I write this with the hope that you can explain to me — to the other 1,800 members of CUPE 5047, to the families of impacted students, to the teachers struggling to compensate for the absence of qualified support — why you can’t budge on an increase in wages for some of the most valuable employees in the province,” McDuff wrote in his letter.

“I respect your attempt to be fiscally responsible with taxpayer money so let’s decide how much we are talking about here. A thought experiment. Let’s use one dollar to make the math easy.”

While he used the $1 figure to make his case, McDuff said he’d personally take less. He said a $1 per hour increase for each striking member would amount to — at most — $40 extra a week for 1,800 people. That’s a total of $72,000 a week. 

Some school support workers only work 35 hours while others only work 50% or 80%, so that figure would likely be less. But using $72,000 per week over 50 weeks, the annual total would be $3.6 million. 

“That seems like a lot of money but many staff are only paid for 40 weeks and have their pay stretched out over the full year so it’s likely not that high,” he wrote. 

‘Bang for the buck’

McDuff said the province just celebrated a $350 million surplus, meaning $3.6 million is “1.028571%” of that number. 

“Let’s accept 1% for simplicity’s sake. What is 1/100 of it — 1 penny, a coin so useless we don’t even use it — that it couldn’t be used to try and make right with some of your lowest paid employees,” McDuff wrote.

He asked what the province would get in exchange for that money, noting that most, if not all of it, would remain in the province.

“You won’t find much of it in offshore accounts. It won’t go towards investing in short term accommodation rentals,” he wrote. “It likely won’t go to travel, taking Nova Scotian money to be spent in parts unknown.”

McDuff said school support workers routinely go above and beyond. That includes arriving early to assist with breakfast programs, volunteering for extra-curricular activities, and spending their already limited income on resources to further engage the children they work with.

Most also work through their breaks, he wrote, “recognizing the nature of our job isn’t making widgets and that we just can’t shut the factory down because it’s 10:15.”

“I give bang for the dollars that I’m paid, and so does just about everybody else that is on that line,” McDuff told the Examiner. “So come down and tell me why I don’t deserve more when you get so much from me already.”

‘This is not what we chose’

EPAs in Nova Scotia are the lowest paid in Canada. With rising inflation, skyrocketing rents, and escalating food and fuel costs, McDuff said they need — and deserve — more. 

“We need the public to know that this is not our fault. This is not what we chose…I thought we would say, ‘No, it’s not enough.’ And they would say, ‘Wow, you guys are serious. We don’t pay you enough as it is, and you’re willing to take even less than that to prove a point? OK. Let’s get this done,’” McDuff said.

“So I guess I’m sorry that I overestimated the value that the government places in us.”

As reported here, the province offered school support workers a 6.5% raise over three years. While the province reached a tentative agreement with school support workers in the rest of the province, workers in HRM rejected the offer.

In his letter to Houston, McDuff said the tentative agreement reached on April 19 was between the provincial government and a council representing eight different CUPE locals. 

“The tentative agreement did have many gains for all locals but only provided for hourly monetary increases to classifications in 7 of those locals,” McDuff wrote. 

“The big winner was wage parity across the province but it came by asking CUPE 5047 to eat nothing except a 6.5% cost of living increase over 4 years that does not even cover inflation for the past year. We were basically asked to accept a pay cut.”

‘Living off honks right now’

As of Tuesday, 567 students with disabilities who rely on the support provided by striking workers were unable to attend school due to the ongoing labour dispute.

“Why are our most vulnerable students and families being forced to bear the brunt of your refusal to recognize our worth, our value, our contribution,” McDuff wrote in his letter. “Why must you take the firmest stance with those that can least afford it?”

With no end to the strike in sight, McDuff’s trying not to think about what happens if it remains unresolved when the school year ends in a few weeks.

“We get our emails from the union. They pump us up…And that’s great. We know we’re doing good. We know we’re getting visible,” McDuff said. 

“But wow, I’d love to just hear that somebody called and said, ‘Let’s meet tomorrow.’ That would probably be the best feeling short of ‘You get to go back to work tomorrow.’”

McDuff said as emotionally, physically, and financially draining as the strike has been, school support workers are at a point where they need to take care of themselves in order to better take care of the children entrusted to them.

“And that’s kind of why I sent a letter. Just a little bit more will take so much pressure collectively off so many people,” he said. 

“We’re living off honks right now, so come to the table. You’ll be surprised at what it will take to get this done at this point. Sadly.”

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. Give them what they want. Give them 3,3,3, 2 over 4 years. Retro. Take it out of budget. What are other employees of same departments getting for raises?

    Cut elsewhere. Lowest paid in Canada. Yet we have some of the highest taxes. They will take time to recover the losses. Work with them. Not worth the loss of morale. They love their jobs. Who is in charge of these negotiations? Stop playing with them. Shame on the government for letting this go this far. Fix it.

  2. So these workers are giving up about 2% of their pay each week they are on strike, based on 24K per year over 44 weeks, so by week 4 they have given everything they would have gotten with the increase and then some. Plus if they out until the end of June will they collect EI… not sure
    Your problem is not with the government it is with your union leadership who have put in the position.
    1) For years you were paid more than the rest of the province, now it is wage parity and you don’t like that .
    2) Not sure of the math usage but 24K times 6.5% is $ 25,560 which is more than $ 24,000! However it does not cover the price of inflation, in the entire province of Nova Scotia, not just Halifax
    3) Do EPA deserve more money, yes but province wide not just Halifax
    4) Do the children and their parents deserve to be used in this dispute because some adult(s) (union) of age only cannot/will not see that this is not the hill to make your last stand on, because you have already lost.
    5) Retreat, take the wage increase, help cover your losses wages (less strike pay if any?) and convince the rest of your union brothers/sisters in the province that you should get/deserve more and shut it down province wide, you will get what you want then! Where are most of the
    Houston’s help – Not a chance see the math below
    NS MLA’s 55 seats
    HRM – 18 seats APPROX – PC 3, Liberal 9, NDP 5, VACANT 1
    Outside of HRM – 37 SEATS PC 28, Liberal 7, NDP 1, Independent Vacant 1