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It’s so nice to get away for a few days

(We really welcome comment on this post from casual and sessional university staff who are similarly experiencing loss of pay this fortnight when all the Australian public holidays have come at once.  Long shot: are there any institutions handling this well?)

I got my sessional teaching contract a few weeks before session was scheduled to begin, which indicated that I had been allocated one tutorial class, one hour a week over 12 weeks of session. I had the option of more, but made the decision not to take them because of the huge marking load associated with taking on multiple 100 level classes. Now in other years this would have been financially prohibitive for me, but it just so happens that this year I am balancing sessional teaching with a project position which is absorbing a lot of my time so it has worked out well.  Then something happened, which has happened to me on many other years, and I stopped to take stock at the inherent bloody unfairness of it.

This year one of my classes was scheduled to run on a public holiday.

In previous years this has been hugely impactful on me. At the beginning of session when I would receive my contract I would allocate the funds from each week’s pay towards different needs: rent, the phone and internet bills, and more recently childcare and other Ms 4 related expenses. Some years are leaner than others, but this is money that I would budget for and rely on. So it would come as an unpleasant shock when a class was scheduled for a public holiday, and therefore wouldn’t run. Meaning, of course, that I wouldn’t be paid for it.

Now I am not an optimist, and would never claim to be. My glass is not half full and is more likely to be bone dry with the faintest odor of vodka, but some might argue that while I wasn’t getting paid, at least I wasn’t working. Au contraire! As a sessional teacher I still need to watch the lecture and familiarise myself with all of the readings and texts as set for that week, as it would be unreasonable to mark student work based on that material without being knowledgeable on it myself. So I spend hours preparing for a class I will not facilitate, and therefore will not get paid for.

As has been acknowledged by authors both on this site, and others, sessional teachers already spend a shitload more time than they are ever compensated for on teaching, as well as marking and other administrative duties that are never acknowledged. So a public holiday and the friendly banter around it about weekends away and “getting away from the office” just add insult to injury for the casual academic. It signifies yet another way that we are different, lesser than, fucked over. We never truly “get away from the office” because we don’t have offices. The bulk of my class preparation happens at my home office. The term “office hours” is meaningless to us as the hours we keep are our own. The work needs to be done, public holiday or otherwise. Marking for example, is a task that needs to be completed within a certain timeframe. If an assignment is submitted before a public holiday then so be it. And before you say: this is also true of full-time academics, just remember who gets paid on public holidays. Oh, right.

But wait, there’s more. Sessional teachers who are parents often face an added complication: child care. My daughter attends a daycare centre in which fees are not charged for public holidays. However others aren’t so lucky. For those, public holidays present a double whammy: not only do they need to do work which remains uncompensated, they also need to pay for their child to attend daycare at a school which their child won’t be attending because the centre will be closed. (This is actually a pretty common policy: in order to hold a child’s place at a centre, fees need to be paid, including for public holidays.)

This public holiday conundrum has happened to me many times before. In other years I have fought to have the class rescheduled, which is no easy feat considering timetabling restrictions and the competing constraints on my students’ time. It is something you have to argue and fight for (it is never offered) and oftentimes it just cannot be done. So this year I took the hit. I let it slide. I am one of the lucky ones in that I have project work to continue with over the Easter break which can tide me over as well, I won’t have a week without pay. Many of my sessional teaching colleagues aren’t so lucky.

Meanwhile, I have had a few awkward interactions with some of my full-time colleagues in the last few weeks. With nought but the best intentions they ask me if I am heading away anywhere. They make the same banter about weekends down the coast and spending time with the kids.  So to our allies: please remember that some of us only get paid when we physically front up to work, and public holidays put a massive dent in our income, while still requiring that we put in hours of preparation for a class that won’t happen.

But you’re right, it is nice to get away for a few days … isn’t it?



9 thoughts on “It’s so nice to get away for a few days

  1. All really good points and I fully concur with you. On the childcare centre policy of charging for public holidays when children can’t attend, I have heard of that and actually thought it was pretty standard. I just hope the owners use the money to pay their staff for the public holiday (but I bet many staff are sessional or casual in that low-paid industry also).
    For me, I have to move house over Easter, so not much break there. AND I have miles of marking to do for the two institutions I work for. One of them pays for marking, the other doesn’t (!), but expects you to do it as part of the sessional hours payment.

    Posted by Caron Eastgate Dann | April 18, 2014, 12:29 pm
    • I am very fortunate that I don’t have to pay for public holidays. On the flip side however, my daughter attends a centre which is amongst the more expensive in the area so upon reflection it probably evens out. There seems to be a high turnover of staff so I suspect what you say about casualisation affecting the childcare sector is most likely the case.
      I learnt recently about this phenomenon of unis not paying for marking. I find that outrageous (even given the things I have tolerated in past). Something’s gotta give.. surely.. I hope your hoursly rate is considerable higher but I am guessing it isn’t the case, or it isn’t high enough to make up the shortfall anyway.

      Posted by The Smart Casual | April 18, 2014, 5:22 pm
      • The university I work at had to abide by the union-led negotiations a few years ago that changed the system to a pay-for-marking one, which made a huge difference. Of course, they straight away axed pay for a prep week and the week after teaching ended. I work at another institution that is a pathway, but still tertiary. They don’t pay for marking, and the hourly teaching rate is considerably lower than that of the uni, even though we teach the same courses. They are on a different award, unfortunately. Have worked all day today (Good Friday) marking, for no pay. I really like the institution and colleagues are great, however.

        Posted by Caron Eastgate Dann | April 18, 2014, 5:27 pm
  2. I also find permanent staff’s jubilation over the break insensitive, to put it kindly. Like every year over this period, two assessments were scheduled for a few days before the “break” with marks due back in the week ahead. One of the universities I work for is giving permanent staff two days of paid leave on top of public holidays. We’re “encouraged” to take time off. When?? This is not sustainable.

    Posted by Another exhausted sessional | April 18, 2014, 6:15 pm
  3. It’s certainly nice to get away — with systemic insensitivity — for some. “Take time to relax and recoup” – sure, if I didn’t have to worry about not getting paid anymore in 2 months time. It’s halfway through semester already, and many of us are already in “saving for a rainy day” mode. That means no nice little trips down the coast or to the Easter Show. Would be lovely to get away but rainy days never actually clear up for YIYOs.

    Posted by Yiyo | April 20, 2014, 2:39 pm
  4. I’ve just come home from Officeworks on ANZAC day, where I commented sympathetically to the worker behind the counter that she seemed sick. She told me that she couldn’t afford to miss her shift because of the double time and a half penalty rates for working a public holiday. So much irony for casual academics.

    And even though the answer is routinely that this is why the hourly rate for casuals academic work is high relative to other casual workers, the range of disadvantages for which this hourly rate is supposed to compensate is extraordinary. Losing pay yet working through public holidays and long weekends is well beyond what this hourly rate can be stretched to do.

    Posted by Kate | April 25, 2014, 4:52 pm


  1. Pingback: Session’s over (Part 1: now what?) | CASA - July 4, 2014

  2. Pingback: Session’s over (Part 2: Improving Our Lot) | CASA - July 20, 2014

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