Why this UOW academic had to return to work four days after breast cancer surgery

This article by Agron Latifi (Illawarra Mercury 9 September 2018), through the story of one individual lays out why Australia’s academics are so upset by their lack of employment security the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is building a campaign to change this.

Four days after her second mastectomy, Dr Annie Werner felt compelled to return to work.

The University of Wollongong tutor and lecturer really had no choice.

The mother of two young children and her partner both work casual jobs.

“If I wasn’t in that classroom, my family’s income fell to $300 per week,” Dr Werner said.

“That’s why four days after my second mastectomy, I was in the classroom. I had to get one of my students to write on the whiteboard for me because I couldn’t lift my arm.”

Dr Werner has worked for the university on a casual basis for the past 13 years.

Employed mainly on 13-week contracts, the academic works out of UOW’s Bega campus.

She teaches up to five subjects per semester, at all levels, across two schools in the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts.

Her working hours for the semester aren’t confirmed until a couple of weeks before session starts, sometimes only a day or two before she steps into the classroom.

“My annual income fluctuates from year to year by up to $20 000. I hold down a casual retail job in order to make it through the weeks of session break when I am not employed or paid by the university,” Dr Werner said.

That’s why four days after my second mastectomy, I was in the classroom. I had to get one of my students to write on the whiteboard for me because I couldn’t lift my arm.

But despite having been employed by the university for the last 13 years, she has to complete new paperwork every session.

And, once her employment is confirmed and evidence of her qualifications is provided, it can still take up to five weeks for Dr Werner to start getting paid, once teaching has started.

But what annoys her most is that she does not receive sick leave, holiday pay, carer’s leave or any kind of research or conference support.

That’s why when the then 35-year-old was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in 2014, she was left with little choice but to keep on working.

“Treatment for this involved two lots of surgery, several months of chemotherapy treatment and a number of admissions to hospital due to complications from the treatments,” she said.

“I had two young children aged four and seven and my partner was also casually employed.

“It was the hardest few months of my life, and I taught through it all.”

Dr Werner loves what she does and believes she is good at it.

But she hates the fact the university doesn’t value long-term career-casuals like her, who very often feel a sense of duty and obligation, especially to their students.

“I care about my students and colleagues, and I’m passionate about doing a good job for them. Unfortunately, it is this care and passion which is very easy for the university to exploit, and they do so with aplomb,” she said.

But this is not the main reason why Dr Werner has chosen to tell her story, which prompted the National Tertiary Education Union to recently open a Protected Action Ballot to empower members to take industrial action in support of its claims for fair pay, secure work and respect.

“I wanted people to understand what it was like on a day to day level to have insecure work,” she said.

“Things like my kids want to do swimming lessons, but will we be able to afford them this summer. Are we going to be able to pay the school fees, our mortgage. These are the thing I worry about because I’m not sure if I’m going to have a job next week, next month, next year.

“The university didn’t pressure me to come back after my surgeries but there was pressure on me as an individual and as a parent who has financial obligations to be at work so I can get paid.

“This culture of insecure work needs to stop. We deserve better, and our students deserve better.”

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