Maddie Hickey loved being an educational assistant for the past three and a half years, but she says she is stepping away from the job this fall because of low wages.
“I’m leaving the job this year because education assistants in Nova Scotia are underpaid and I need to think about my family,” Hickey said about her former job as a term education assistant at Riverside Education Center in Lantz, NS
“It’s hard to make ends meet making $15 per hour.”
Hickey worked within the Chignecto Central Regional Center for Education. Educational assistants make hourly wages ranging from $16.10 to $22.24 based on their qualifications.
According to federal job bank data published last November, the national median hourly wage for educational assistants is $22.86. Casual and term educational assistants often get paid significantly less than permanent educational assistants.
Educational assistants support teachers in keeping classes running. They often ensure students with behavioral issues or disabilities get an education tailored to their needs.
“I loved my job. On our good days we get to sing, dance, and see them achieve something,” Hickey said.
“But on our bad days we’re coming home with bruises, bumps, broken glasses and our hair pulled out. We’re exhausted physically, emotionally and mentally.”
Tricky to get permanent positions
There are seven English regional centers of education and one French school board in the province that determine salaries for educational assistants. The eight school boards offer different wages based on their position and qualifications.
Hickey said in order to get a higher-paying permanent job with benefits with the Chignecto Central School Board she’d have to complete a year-long course that cost thousands of dollars. She believes years of experience should be more of a determinant in educational assistant wages.
“It wouldn’t be possible to support my family while doing the program. I’d have to go through funding and bursaries, I’ve looked into it and I’d still have to pay $7,000 or $8,000,” Hickey said.
“It’s frustrating in the fact that we’re already doing the job. There are some EAs that have been working 15-plus years and will not get a permanent position because years experience is null and void.
“It’s a slap in the face from the government and school boards that we are not recognized for the work we do.”
The Chignecto Central Regional Center for Education said adjustments to wages and other salary determinations would follow collective bargaining.
Ongoing bargaining amid staff leaving the sector
There are three unions in the province that represent educational assistants. Representatives from NSGEU, SEIU and CUPE are bargaining with regional centers of education to raise wages for educational assistants.
Sandra Mullen, the president of NSGEU, said that the union has been bargaining for many years.
“We felt they are underpaid for what they do. They are a very important part of the education system and the lowest paid members of our education system,” Mullen said. “We are working to increase that bottom rate to a living wage.”
Mullen said low wages for educational assistants amid inflation is leading to further staff shortages.
Courtnee Peddle depends on educational assistant support to ensure her 11-year-old son stays safe at school. He has autism and wears a tracking bracelet due to fears of him running away.
“He wouldn’t be in school if there weren’t any EAs there and I wouldn’t be able to work,” Peddle said. “I work part time around his school hours because I’m unable to get child care for him because his needs are so severe.”
Peddle has been offered to supplement educational assistants salaries out of her own pocket to ensure her son gets the care he needs. Her son is non-verbal so she depends on educational assistants to hear about his day.
“They go above and beyond to keep that routine and that connection among us so we can try to create a better future for him,” Peddle said. “They deserve respect and support so they can continue to create our little people into great adults.”