Employment (In)security and Shame: Working Hard on Soft Money

For those of you who are familiar with my blog, you would know that I am a long term casual academic, who last year was able to gain fractional employment within the tertiary sector under a short term contract as a professional member of staff. I am very fortunate in that this opportunity has afforded me a modicum of security and financial stability. This set of circumstances occurred at both a good and bad time for me. Last year my Dad became ill with liver cancer and died, while earlier this year my husband had to go undergo spinal surgery and is unable to work full-time while he is in recovery. In my writing I have acknowledged both my extreme privilege in being able to access paid leave concessions during these stressful experiences, while also acknowledging that the precariousness of my working situation has meant that I have never quite felt comfortable enough in my position to take full advantage of them. I am employed year-to-year and it just so happened that I was in the position of having to apply for my own position just a short time after having buried my Dad.

Needless to say, 2014 wasn’t the best year for me.

However due to my hard work, and the successes of my project, I am now acknowledged on my institution’s public webpages as a member of staff. From the outside it may appear that I may have even made it. I am liked and respected, perhaps even valued by my colleagues and peers. However the nature of my employment has meant that I have never felt like I was properly a part of the institution. Still no tinsel for me.

And soon I may not be. I very recently learned that the grant body which funds my position may be withdrawing their support for my project into 2016. Not because of any wrongdoing on my part. Not because of any dissatisfaction from the student participants of the project I am a part of, if anything the opposite is true. Not because of anyone’s individual cruelty, this is the system and the system works in its own obtuse way. Not because of budgetary mishandling or political maneouvreing or any kind of strategic misstep on my part, but simply because the priorities of this group has shifted onto other projects. This is simply the nature of soft funding, one minute you have it and the next you don’t. Now this decision isn’t fait accompli. I was tasked with writing an “impact statement” which would outline the risks to the university if funding was not to continue from this source. I wrote one, a damn good one, which made salient points about the welfare of the students and the need we were addressing. Later in the year I will learn of the outcome of this appeal. Until then I continue to work under the BAU model, making plans for the future and operating under the tenuous assumption that everything will be just fine.

I am in limbo. My position is funded up until 31 December 2015, but after that there is no certainty. If and when funding is secured (either from this original source, or internally sourced) then my job will still not likely be secure as, like last year, I will be put into the position of writing my own position description, and again applying for my own job. Sound familiar?

This is entirely circumstancial, and none of these events are a reflection of my skills, abilities, or dedication to the role that I have. I know this intellectually. I understand that a staggering 8 out of 10 workers employed within higher education in Australia are employed under either casual or short term contracts contracts (boy do I know). Lots of people know about it. The NTEU know about it. Actual Casuals know about. There has been an academic conference dedicated to these issues. I am not unlike so many of my friends and colleagues in the sector, insecure, overworked, and possibly soon even unemployed.

Then why do I feel so fucking ashamed?

Today I was on my phone at work, speaking to a friend on the phone about a conference submission we were working on. She asked me how I was and naturally, this was at the forefront of my mind. I hesitated in telling her, not because I thought she would judge me (quite the opposite in fact) but because I work in an open plan office and didn’t want the people I work with to know my secret. Because they might judge me. Because they might blame me. Because they might think I brought this upon myself with incompetence, or laziness, or stupidity.

I told my friend anyway, playing it off like it wasn’t a big deal, but I could feel my face burning. My dirty secret was out, a secret not mine to keep, a secret not a secret at all.

It has always been important to me that people know how hard I work, how dedicated I am to what I do. I am often the first to arrive in the office and among the last to leave. Now we are in the middle of Australia’s winter I frequently walk to my car in the dark, using my phone’s flashlight function to illuminate the way. I try I try I try so. fucking. hard.

Perhaps the root of my shame: I am a decidedly “working class” girl. My Dad was a hard-working electrician, my Mum “stayed at home”. We lived in a fibro house in what is classified as a Low SES area – my living situation had its own statistical category. We had a nice house and I am proud of how hard my Dad worked to provide for us, but we certainly were not “well off”. I was also the first in my family to attend university. My family was all incredibly proud of me for attending university, even if they didn’t always understand what I did there (my major was Communications, my Nan would tell people I studied primary school teaching, or psychology, or English literature, as the mood struck her). I had their full support to do the thing, even when the benefits of the thing became muddied. Even after I dropped out of my PhD there was still a certain amount of prestige for them associated with me being a “tutor” (now known as casual academic, a term which conveys prestige that tutor never did). But by withdrawing from the PhD, and never extending beyond the role of the casual academic, I feel like I failed my hardworking and principled family. Conversely I also failed the institution by never quite being good enough for them, ultimately failing to get the PhD that meant so much to me. By never properly escaping from the trap of casual academia all I proved (to myself, if no one else) was that I didn’t work hard enough. My academic successes were shared by my family and my institution, my failures were mine alone. Over time I came to reframe my misguided dedication to academia as a noble pursuit, a higher calling, to mask the shame I felt as having failed within a system in which there is little-to-no chance to succeed in the first place.

However a decade later my insistence in remaining loyal to the sector has paid off, in a fashion. I have secured work I enjoy. I am good at it. I am starting to build a profile. And now the chance exists that the rug will be pulled out from under me.

Richard Kuttner (cited in Bertram) notes that the ‘new’ economy has destabilised the central premise of the ‘old work economy’, that being that a worker’s commitment and loyal service to her employer would be rewarded over time with security and advancement opportunities. However, as Eva Bertram argues, with downsizing and deindustrialisation within the new economy, employment now comes with little to no security. As has long been discussed in regards to the increased casualisation and precarity of employment within the tertiary sector in particular, employee loyalty and commitment are a decidedly irrational decision. There is no security in higher education in Australia. While regular employment “provides the anchor for spatial and temporal aspects of daily life” (Wilson in Bertram) Bertram notes that:

Today however, incoherence and unpredictability are not only a hallmark of unemployment, but also are the characteristics of many jobs

Work in the tertiary sector in Australia is indeed both incoherent and unpredictable. It makes no sense for casual and limited term contract employees to be loyal to the tertiary institutions they work for. I know from my own experience that my loyalty, commitment, and dedication are unlikely to be acknowledged, let alone rewarded, in this current climate. Yet I was a casual academic for over a decade. I know of higher education workers who have worked for even longer on back-to-back limited-term contracts, only to find out at the eleventh hour after all of those years of service, that they didn’t have a job to return to after Christmas. I know of an exceptional academic who worked as a subject coordinator in one session, only to be scrambling for work the next. These stories aren’t the exception in higher education in Australia, they are the rule.

I knew all of those things. I know them intimately. I blog about them for goodness sake. And yet still I try. Still I commit. Still I return to my car in the dark. Still I miss the soccer practice and the school pick ups. Still I irrationally hope that my hard work will be rewarded with security, opportunities for advancement, recognition of my contribution.

As well as being ashamed, I think I am also angry. Over the twelve months I have sacrificed time I could have spent with my daughter, who this year entered kindergarten. I sacrificed time I could have used to look after myself both physically and emotionally following the illness and death of my Dad. My working class background, coupled with my long term history of precarious employment has left me feeling ashamed and guilty. I am angry at my own perceived childishness for investing in the seemingly naïve notion that hard work is always recognised and rewarded in due course. I am angry at myself. I am angry at being in this position yet again.

I know this problem is much bigger than me, my friends and colleagues, my Twitter allies. These are issues that need to be addressed at the systemic level. I don’t have answers, only a drive to see positive change in the sector that I am a part of, however tenuously. Join the #securework Tweetup on Friday and share your stories. I know I will.

Suggestions for ways to improve your relationship with your casual colleagues

After many Twitter-based discussions regarding the state of casualisation within the higher education sector affecting academic staff, general staff, and professional staff alike, I have decided to write a list of suggestions to take on board when you are communicating with your casual colleagues. Some of these are specific to academics, while others apply to casual colleagues more generally. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Make your own suggestions in the comments.

The anecdotes and examples are drawn both from my own experiences, and those of my peers. Thanks to those of you who contributed your stories.

1) Don’t liken your situation to that of your casual colleagues, especially if they are not comparable.

This situation can manifest in a few ways, but the crux of the issue is this: sometimes full-time staff make demands on the time and energy of their casual colleagues without taking the scope and limitations of our casual, limited-hours contracts into account. For example, if we come to you concerned that the assignments we are marking have no defined upper word limit, don’t dismiss us with “I have a lot of marking to do as well”. The thing is you don’t get to compare your situation to ours because you have the ability to do something about it. Casual tutors are paid a flat rate for marking which assumes a certain amount of words per student, so marking assignments that are 3000 words, as opposed to the paid rate of 1500 words, makes a big impact on the time we spend doing it and how much we will eventually get paid for our labour. You have a full-time position and an office, whereas we are oftentimes marking from home at 3 in the morning around caring responsibilities, thesis writing, and other employment. NOT the same.

Similarly, don’t demand that we call you from home, or ‘glance over’ something, or come onto campus unnecessarily. Separately these things amount to being ‘not a big deal’ and may only register to you as an inconvenience. However what is not a ‘big deal’ for you may in fact be a huge deal for us as this is time and expense that we aren’t reimbursed for. That’s how these minor inconveniences have come to encroach on so much of our time, because they are incremental.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Be mindful not to overload us with work that is outside of the scope of our casual contracts. Set strict word limits and take care to design assignments and prepare course content which is mindful of these limitations. Be supportive of our concerns, and when we come to you with an issue relating to the workload, please LISTEN.

2) Don’t refer to us in the plural

Don’t refer to my casual colleagues and I as “the casuals” or “the team” when you actually are referring to me. For example, if you receive work that needs to be assigned to me then please use my name. Say: “I will see if The Smart Casual is able to do that” not “I will get one of the casuals to do that”. Your casual colleagues are not an amorphous, interchangeable blob of work doers, or free floating heads who seem to magically appear whenever unpleasant things need to be done.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Include us in these conversations as full and equal participants. When you speak to us think about how you would feel to be talked to/communicated with in this way. This goes beyond casual/full-time relations and is just common courtesy.

3) Don’t dismiss us when we want to know more about the future of the project you want us to work on together

For casual staff within higher education, our employment is precarious and piecemeal. We have to give careful consideration to the projects we take on, and those we choose to reject. If we come to you wanting to know if the project is going to be ongoing, or what you see our role as being, then please be candid. No funding? Fine. No future? No problem. But don’t dismiss us and don’t give us false hope. The time commitment and deadlines also play a major factor in our decision making, so let us know as much as you know so we are able to make an informed decision.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Don’t take our participation for granted. Instead, ask how are we going and if your proposed project is likely to fit into our schedule. We have many conflicting priorities and don’t just exist when it is convenient to you.

4) Do value and acknowledge the contribution we make.

Casuals work really hard. Take notice of that. You don’t have to throw us a parade, but a simple thanks at the end of session goes a long way, maybe even a cup of coffee (on your dime) can make us feel less like the hired help and more like your peer and colleague. Similarly…

5) Don’t forget we exist in the time between projects.

To be an ally to your casual colleagues you should keep them in the loop. When the working relationship is over, the marks have been submitted and the essays handed back, maybe invite your casual colleagues to talk about future projects, their kids, whatever. This may appear to be in contrast with what is set out in point 1) about coming onto campus unneccesarily however just being invited would go a long way to making us feel as if we are a part of our campus’ community.

6) Don’t comment on the personal appearance of your female colleagues.

I am not going to explain this one. Comment on the contribution we make in the workplace. Give us feedback on work we have submitted to you. Ask our opinion even, but don’t draw attention to things that are irrelevant to our interactions within the workplace. You may consider it to be friendly banter, but the power dynamic is as such that we may not feel comfortable having to defend our sartorial choices to you.

[Please note: that faux leather jacket is not an “affectation”, the word you are looking for is “awesome”. But regardless, please don’t]

7) Don’t pay lipservice to the idea of the ‘team’ and then operate the workplace based on a caste system.

The term is meaningless buzz unless there is real commitment to it. Team doesn’t just mean “people who work in the same room as me sometimes”. There is nothing more patronising than attempting to use empty team rhetoric to motivate adults. And think about what you are communicating to your casual colleague by asking them to hold down the fort so the full-timers can attend the department Christmas party… two years in a row.

     WHAT YOU CAN DO INSTEAD: Create open communication channels, and check in with all team members to see how they are moving towards their professional goals. Don’t just talk about “the team”, facilitate it on our behalf. Help your casual colleagues by fighting for paid meetings so we can discuss issues and not feel so bloody isolated. If you are aware that the Faculty or Department you are working in is holding an event then make sure the casual members of your team are included. Not just cc’d into the email mind you, but that they feel that they would be welcome to come. At the very least, make an attempt to have all team members in the same room at the same time at least once every few months. Nothing makes me sadder than realising that it has been months since I have seen a colleague in person, because our roster/schedules have us passing like ships in the night.

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I think we can all agree that the system is broken. Full-time positions are unlikely to materialise in the immediate future, however that doesn’t mean we can’t start to think of more immediate and direct ways we can foster a healthier and more balanced work environment for all workers within higher education. What are your thoughts?