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Eighteen schools in the Vancouver Island district of Saanich will be behind picket lines Monday as support workers take strike action.

Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 441 president Dean Coates said the district had asked his 500 members to reconsider its final offer but that was rejected on Saturday.

Coates said they have lower wages than their counterparts in other area school districts and it’s a decades-old problem that causes recruitment and retention problems with staff.

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“So, we’re overworked, postings go unfilled, no replacements because they can’t retain them, they go to the other districts,” he said. “So, we’re in a constant state of triage as a result of the low wages.”

District superintendent Dave Eberwein said in an interview Sunday that the district has offered the union everything possible under the government-directed mandate of two per cent in each of three years.

He said they’ve also looked for other ways to increase salaries.

“There isn’t another support staff offer out there in the province that is as good as this one,” Eberwein said. “It doesn’t completely bridge the wage disparity, but this is step one of two that we’re looking at.”

The teachers’ union has told the district that it will respect the pickets and Eberwein said they are the telling parents of its 7,300 students that they will have to find alternative care for their children.

Eberwein said support workers are paid hourly wages ranging from 30 cents to $4 lower than workers in other area districts because the union opted for better benefits decades ago. He said the jobs that lag behind in wage are typically inside workers dominated by women.

“Both the union and the board agree we need to address the salaries for education assistants,” he said.

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On top of the six per cent government mandated increase, they’ve been able to provide a salary lift for education assistants between 10 and 11.7 per cent over three-year term, Eberwein noted.

A 2016 Supreme Court of Canada ruling reduced class sizes in B.C., which set off a shortage of both teachers and education assistants in the province.

No new negotiations had been planned to between the two sides.

Coates said his membership is passionate about the wage increase because the workers need to provide for their own families.

“We are absolutely open to sitting down and having some meaningful discussions to finally reach an agreement that address our 40-year need for a wage adjustment.”

There are child care facilities in some Saanich public schools and Eberwein said they worked out a goodwill agreement with both unions to allow access to those sites.

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