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Under Duress: The intensification of clerical work in B.C. schools

John Malcolmson CUPE Research

A new report looking at the performance of clerical work in BC’s public school system explores how CUPE members have fared in the wake of a decade of government austerity and service cuts.

Under Duress: the intensification of clerical work in BC’s public school system is based on an online survey of clerical workers undertaken in the spring of 2014, along with a review of relevant research, and analysis of school budgeting. About 1,300 clerical staff in 49 BC school districts completed this survey for a response rate of close to 30 per cent. The report was written by CUPE research representative John Malcolmson.

Who occupies today’s K-12 clerical jobs?

The report confirms that clerical work remains overwhelmingly female-dominated as 98 per cent of survey participants indicate they are women. The average age of today’s K-12 clerical worker is 51 years and that worker has 22 years of clerical work experience, roughly half of which is with her current employer.

The largest group of clerical workers holds college-level credentials, with a smaller number reporting university degrees. Most clerical work in the public school system is both continuing and full-time in nature. The average K-12 clerical worker earns almost $36,000 annually.

What did we learn about K-12 clerical work?

Under Duress shows that, like other school support workers, clerical staff face relentless budgetary pressure on school operations. Combined with a push to direct maximum resources “to the classroom,” there have been ongoing efforts to squeeze more out of school system support workers with less funding.

The result has been a compression of clerical work hours and increased workload. Other effects include increases in job requirements, additional range and complexity of things demanded of workers, and rising stress associated with these demands.

Despite these changes, clerical staff report high levels of overall job satisfaction, citing the importance of the personal relationships they cultivate to how they feel about work.

The report does uncover health and safety concerns. Most clerical staff report pain – concentrated in the neck, back and shoulder areas – and most see it as work-related. The survey also compiles information on ergonomic issues raised by members, chief among them the fact that many clerical staff work long hours seated in front of computer screens. This raises concerns regarding the long-term health of clerical staff faced with these job requirements.

Unpaid time is also an issue for clerical staff. On average, a clerical worker performs half an hour of unpaid work each week. As Under Duress notes, the performance of unpaid work provides clear evidence of the commitment members have to their jobs amidst conditions marked by declining hours of work and increases in individual workload.

Clerical staff also reference a significant incidence of aggressive encounters with parents, community members and students. The way they deal with them differs depending on the circumstances. Encounters with students are more likely to elicit formal reporting, and follow-up consequences as students are generally covered by codes of conduct. Parents and community members are not as clearly covered so there is increased likelihood of members brushing off these kinds of encounters.

What’s next?

The report calls for workers, CUPE and public school employers to work together to address key issues and concerns raised and to improve the work environment faced by K-12 clerical staff.

Read the full report. Check out Under Duress: the intensification of clerical work in BC’s public school system at cupe.bc.ca.