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City council revises ‘discriminatory’ policy, grants subsidy to U of O graduate student

A graduate student at the University of Ottawa has determined that she will receive childcare assistance following a dispute with the City of Ottawa over revisions to its policy.

Olena Stetskevych said she received a letter from the city stating she had been denied a childcare subsidy she applied for last year because she’s a full-time master’s student. Stetskevych, 28, holds a master of laws from Ukraine and is studying for a Canadian equivalency degree from the U of O. Stetskevych requires assistance to take care of her infant son, Mikhail, while she continues her graduate studies.

“The city kept asking me for additional documents, asking me for academic credentials,” she said.

Stetskevych was given time to appeal the decision.

The city revised CCSU Policy 4.9 from the Studying and Training section of its Child Care Services branch in October. Since then, several adjustments, changes, and meetings have taken place to resolve the issue. Stetskevych was informed on Feb. 5 that she would receive the subsidy after all.

“They agree that the policy revised in October was not correct,” she said in an email to the Fulcrum.

However, because she was initially denied the subsidy, Stetskevych has lost her spot at her daycare and will have to wait for another spot to become available, which she said may take months.

“Not undermining all good that goes with this news, it should not be forgotten that the unconsidered city policy has already negatively affected grad students,” she said.

“I am still spending money on just a few hours of daycare and spending time on looking for a daycare spot, instead of having a subsidized spot without bearing unnecessary expenses and [instead] concentrating on studies full-time.”

The policy’s intent was to determine eligibility for lower-income parents who are studying or training and need childcare assistance. The way the policy was worded, it was perceived by graduate student representatives that the policy’s exceptions made it impossible for students studying at a master’s or doctorate level to obtain a childcare subsidy.

On Jan. 16, the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) at Carleton and the Graduate Students’ Association of the University of Ottawa (GSAÉD) sent an open letter to Mayor Jim Watson and the rest of city council addressing their concerns regarding the revision.

Aaron Burry, general manager for the city’s Community and Social Services Department, responded to the letter by informing graduate association representatives Taiva Tegler of the GSAÉD and Kelly Black and Anna Goldfinch of the GSA that graduate students are still eligible to apply.

Burry said in his letter that “one element has led to a conclusion that the graduate students are not eligible for consideration for subsidies for childcare,” but that this was not the case. Burry’s letter also stated that the city has not changed its approach to managing childcare subsidies, and that there was never an intent to exclude anyone.

“The change in process does however support the prioritization of someone who is employed and needs to remain employed … or someone finishing an undergraduate degree,” Burry wrote.

He said the city revised the wording of its Studying and Training procedures because of this.

After Burry’s letter to GSAÉD and the GSA, the graduate associations responded with another open letter addressed to Mayor Watson and city councillors. The letter stated that the associations received contradictory statements from city council, and that both groups were contacted by students receiving subsidies because they had applied and were deemed ineligible according to the original policy statement.

After Stetskevych’s appearance on CBC Radio along with Dr. Amir Attaran, a law professor at the U of O who is also her thesis supervisor, she was asked to attend a meeting with the city along with the GSAÉD and GSA representatives to discuss the new revisions.

During the meeting, she was told that her application and all graduate student applications would be re-evaluated and reconsidered.

“They told me every particular case is individual—they will give it to who needs it most,” she said.

 

Genevieve Cloutier is a mother and master’s student in education who found herself in a similar situation. She said she was accepted into the subsidized program before accepting her offer of admission to the U of O and could not have accepted the offer without the subsidy. However, she may still lose her subsidy in May.

“I believe that taking it away prior to the completion of my program is completely unfair. It puts my family in a compromised position,” she said.

Cloutier called the initial revision of the city’s policy “discriminatory” and said she believes access to free childcare is “essential to a healthy democracy and community.” As of Feb. 5, Cloutier had not heard back from her subsidy coordinator.

Mark Taylor, chair of the Community and Protective Services Committee and city councillor for the Bay ward, spoke to the Fulcrum about the issue.

“There is no one determining factor that declines your application for assistance,” he said.

Applicants are put through an income-tested program, which includes criteria such as household family income, socioeconomic status, educational enrolment and type of study (undergraduate or graduate), and future goals. Taylor explained that undergraduate students are prioritized.

“Once you go beyond that, you could get a job,” he said. “It may not be what you want, but to work in this city, an undergraduate degree is almost necessary.”

In late August 2012, the city received 20 applications from graduate students. Seven applicants were approved, while two are still under review.

“No matter what, there is still not enough to cover every applicant who applies,” said Taylor.

According to Taylor, in February the city will discuss changes to its social services and will look into the role other institutions could play in improving access to daycare facilities, such as providing employee benefit packages that would grant childcare benefits to workers.

GSAÉD external commissioner Tegler told the Fulcrum in an email that the city will include the word “graduate” so that the policy will now read, “A parent who meets the financial eligibility criteria and demonstrates progression through a full time academic program (undergrad, graduate, high school, college diploma) or a language or training program.”

She said the policy will prioritize students with recognized post-secondary degrees, diplomas, or certificates who also meet financial criteria based on their socioeconomic needs.

“However, we are very concerned with graduate students receiving the subsidy in the future,” said Tegler.

The GSA and the GSAÉD will continue to lobby the provincial government “to address the issue of childcare subsidy underfunding, and to make them aware of the detrimental effects this can have on graduate students,” Tegler said.