Christina Osadchuk/Production Editor
What does it mean to be valued and why such a discrepancy?
Have you ever felt like you weren’t valued at work? Well, that’s how some students who are employed with the McMaster Students Union are feeling.
The MSU has about 300 clubs and 22 services that provide McMaster students opportunities to engage in extracurricular activities. While clubs are governed by individual student presidents, MSU services work a little differently.
They’re led by directors — McMaster students who are enrolled in eighteen credits or more. Service directors, who are classified as part-time managers at the MSU, are expected to hire a team of executives, manage a budget and coordinate events. PTMs go through an intensive hiring process and once hired, they attend training sessions on how to effectively run their department, learn MSU policies, procedures and practices. At least, this is what the process is on paper.
While this process might seem routine for anybody starting a new job, three PTMs have stepped forward to the Silhouette to share their experiences working for the MSU. The Silhouette has granted these individuals anonymity due to their employment with the MSU and their fear of retribution. They shall be referred to as PTM 1, PTM 2 and PTM 3.
This is not the first time the Silhouette has covered the MSU PTM experience. In June 2017, Zeinab Khawaja, the director of the Peer Support Line, a service that no longer exists at the MSU, brought forth to the Student Representative Assembly a number of concerns on behalf of the PTMs.
“It feels like our dedication to our services is used against us, because it is known that we will continue to do the work and put in the hours even though we are not being compensated fairly for it . . . Yet going above and beyond in our roles — something implicitly expected of a “good” part-time manager — is not rewarded, and instead deemed a ‘personal choice’ of the part-time manager that was never explicitly asked of us,” said Khawaja as reported by the Silhouette in 2017.
There isn’t a lot of information publicly available on what happened after this meeting, but Preethi Anbalagan, VP Admin in 2017, said that the MSU was working to address the issues brought forth by Khawaja.
Each PTM reports to the MSU Executive Board — a group consisting of five SRA members, the Board of Directors, General Manager, Communications Director, Administrative Services Coordinator and Associate Vice-President: Services.
Reflecting on the Past:
According to the 2021-2022 PTMs, most of their issues can be condensed into two main areas: lack of support/communication and lack of training. In fact, most of the grievances they have aired to the Silhouette this year line up with what Khawaja stated to the SRA in 2017.
In preparation for their interviews, we asked the PTMs to read our past coverage on the matter.
“Although unsurprising, it was quite shocking to see the exact same frustrations I had experienced echoing an article written five years ago. This really shows how systemic these issues are and that it is a deeper issue within the MSU structure,” said PTM 2.
This statement was echoed.
“I have heard from my predecessor and my predecessor’s predecessor that this job is unnecessarily stressful. It shocks me to my core that folks have been sharing these thoughts and feelings for years and absolutely nothing has changed,” said PTM 3.
Lack of Support & Communication:
Every individual may need support a little differently, but according to the MSU PTMs, “support feels non-existent” from their supervisor, MSU VP Administration, Christina Devarapalli. One PTM even stated that this lack of support and communication was their biggest job stressor.
“The silence from our supervisor [is the biggest stressor of my job]. We work in liminality of feeling overwhelmed by the information, protocol and bureaucracy required to achieve really anything and feeling entirely underwhelmed by the guidance and instruction required to navigate these,” said PTM 1.
MSU President Denver Della-Vedova indicated that while Devarapalli is the supervisor, there are also supports for the service directors with other MSU staff such as their assistant directors, MSU human resources and the rest of Executive Board.
Both Della-Vedova and Devarapalli stated that all PTMs can state any challenges they are currently facing in reports that they present to Executive Board.
“When any report comes in, the first thing I go to is the challenges section and when that report is presented at EB, as Denver mentioned, he follows up, [and] I also make an effort to follow up as well to see what kind of support we can offer,” said Devarapalli.
Communication breakdowns seemed to occur quite frequently when PTMs allegedly would send emails to Devarapalli but receive no response. One breakdown of significance was identified by PTM 3 who stated that service directors were not informed of the MSU going from solely online operations to hybrid during the Winter 2022 term.
“[W]ithout ANY communication with service PTMs, the MSU publicly shared to thousands of students that peer support services [would] be moving back to in-person operations . . . I have asked about the transition back to in-person numerous times with zero answers. And now I am hearing that my service is going back in person through the [MSU] Instagram account? This is ridiculously disrespectful to the folks who are working their butts off to run these peer support services with very little support and very little instruction while also being full-time students,” they said.
Devarapalli clarified to the Silhouette that there was an oversight internally at the MSU with regards to this issue. As the MSU leadership started to finalize what a potential return to campus would look like, it accidentally went out on social media before internal folks could be informed.
“As soon as we recognized this, I went and clarified the expectations around [the return to campus] and that it was not a complete or obligated return. Rather, it was based on a service’s individual timeline and capacity,” said Devarapalli.
Della-Vedova pointed out that Devarapalli did hold open office hours, had an open-door policy and gave all PTMs her personal phone number.
Devarapalli added that she tried to create a “casual, virtual environment” through hosting open-door meetings three times a week, but also allowing PTMs to schedule more traditional, “formal” meetings if they chose.
Lack of Training and Hours:
Although training is outlined in their job descriptions, the MSU allegedly did not provide all of the training required for the PTMs to be successful.
According to the PTMs, there was a lack of proper budget training and anti-oppressive training, even though it is expected that service directors apply an antiracist and anti-oppressive framework within their services as per their job descriptions.
“Our training consisted primarily of how to fill out purchase orders and how to use excel to track our hours. There is so much more training that needs to go into [these roles]. I felt like I was dumped in the deep end with absolutely no experience and absolutely no meaningful training for the role,” said PTM 3.
Della-Vedova and Devarapalli seemed quite confused when the Silhouette asked them about this lack of training.
Devarapalli clarified that each year, the MSU provides sexual violence prevention response, accessibility training and anti-oppressive practices training. Not only was this training provided live, but it was also posted to Avenue2Learn in module form, which allowed for the MSU to track who has completed the training. She also stated that financial training was provided at least three times.
This directly conflicts with what PTM 3 stated to the Silhouette, claiming that there was no asynchronous option for training and that no anti-oppressive practices training was provided.
It should also be noted that although these PTMs have signed on to work 12-14 hours per week, they have claimed they worked at least 20 hours a week in order to meet the duties outlined in their job descriptions and service operating policies.
“I feel like the MSU is profiting off of the work that students are putting in without doing any of the work themselves. We are scolded for going over hours,” said PTM 3.
Devarapalli directly addressed this comment.
“I don’t think that the concept of profiting off people’s labour or exploiting them is accurate because the MSU is a not-for-profit organization, so none of these student services generate revenue to the board. All of them operate within confined budgets that are approved by the SRA,” she said.
Devarapalli stated that resources have been provided to PTMs which can allow them to fall back on full-time staff, the VP Admin or even their assistant directors; however, this should be delegated.
Della-Vedova also clarified that when a PTM thinks they are going to go over their hours in a given week, they must seek approval from the VP Admin by providing an approximate range of how much they will go over, allowing the VP Admin to see if any support can be given. Part of this process involves PTMs actively tracking their hours and specifying what they are doing with their time.
What is Actually Happening at the MSU?
Unfortunately, the Silhouette cannot discern why there is such a discrepancy between the experiences of the PTMs and the views of the Board of Directors.
Della-Vedova weighed in with his thoughts.
“I think it really is a difference in expectations as we move through the year and we’ve had this changing paradigm of COVID. I think we have to recognize that there has been shifts there and with that, has come changes in what we need of each other in the whole . . . it is hard to make those changes.” said Della-Vedova.
Based on interviews with both parties, there seemed to be an overwhelming sense that a systemic lack of communication and mistrust could factor into this situation reaching a boiling point. Coupled with COVID-19 forcing all communications to be digital, both the PTMs and Board of Directors have likely fallen victim to this unfortunate circumstance.
“With regards to communication as well, I think just being in a COVID year has made it very challenging for everyone and email is not the most efficient way to do fast communication and also reliable communication in general . . . I think this will also dissipate, as you know, everyone returns to the regular student life experience on campus,” said Devarapalli.
PTM 2 did try to have a positive outlook on the future of the PTM/Board of Directors relationship, speaking directly to this year’s leadership team.
“We understand that your roles are frustrating, overwhelming, and difficult but this is an area we can relate on. There does not have to be fabricated tension between the VPs and PTMs. If we talked openly and honestly about the difficulties in our roles, our capacities, and the constraints of our influences we would all be better off and able to create a healthier work environment. I feel saddened that many of the PTMs complaints were met with defensiveness instead of an openness to conversation and collaboration, but hopeful that this can be reframed for future teams,” said PTM 2.
Each PTM also suggested how their roles can be improved so the issues they identified could be nipped in the bud for future years.
Suggestions such as adding more paid roles to help strengthen the team instead of relying solely on volunteer work; more training in areas directly linked to peer support; a better transition in and out of the role; as well as open communication and transparency between PTMs and the Board of Directors could all drastically improve the experiences for both parties.
Della-Vedova did point out that the MSU created new paid positions during the 2020-2021 year in the form of assistant directors to help offset some of the service directors’ responsibilities.
He also stated that the Board of Directors is directly working with Maccess to identify ways to split up the director role or add a second assistant director, recognizing that the workload might be too much for disabled folks.
The Silhouette gave each PTM the opportunity to say something directly to the MSU leadership team; however, this statement was quite startling: “Every time I ask for your help and all you do is nod and smile without even a smidge of valuable advice, I feel small and stupid,” said PTM 1.
Both Della-Vedova and Devarapalli were taken aback by this comment.
“So first off, I want to say, obviously upsetting to read that and I very much feel for whoever wrote this and would heavily encourage them to reach out,” said Della-Vedova.
The two went on to suggest ways that the experience could be improved in the future thanks to the MSU looking to increase human resources support, but also ensuring that the in-person environment we are likely going into with the 2022-2023 term is conducive to having these types of conversations.
Next year’s VP Admin, Mitchell German, was the Spark director for the 2021-2022 term. During his election at the first SRA meeting for the academic year, German emphasized that his experience leading Spark would enable him to better provide supports for next year’s PTMs.
“I think that more than half the job of VP Admin is support, specifically for the MSU services. And having been involved in a variety of them, personally being the part-time manager for Spark . . . Support is not something that is one-size fits all. You really do have to take that individualized approach and the best way to be able to support somebody is by simply asking how do they like being supported,” said German at SRA 22A.
With German at the helm of service delivery for next year, it is expected that he’ll fall back on his PTM experience from Spark and any knowledge he may have of issues facing other services in the 2021-2022 year when it comes to assisting next year’s cohort. Della-Vedova and Devarapalli said that they’re more than willing to have a chat with the three PTMs that the Silhouette interviewed for this article, for them to be open about concerns they’ve had, if not for themselves, for their successors.