This week, our member spotlight is on Shannon Berseth, a Part-Time 311 Toronto customer service representative.
Shannon began working for the City in 2013, bringing with her a host of call centre experience. One of her last gigs was as a manager at a large corporate outfit, which she left after being offered a package during a downsizing.
Shannon’s favourite part of 311 is her colleagues. “311 is so full of people that care about the City and are naturally customer service oriented,” she says. “And the reaction from the public is also great; we get commended all the time for our service.”
Although Shannon says the knowledge base and training needs required at 311 are demanding and dwarf previous call centre experience, the work at 311 is much more interesting.
“You literally cannot predict what your next call is going to be.”
Her initial six-week training period for 311 was extensive. “You get paired up with other more experienced representatives, and there’s a lot of classroom training.”
There are also regular presentations at 311 from other Divisions that help with her knowledge of City services. In winter, for instance, Transportation Services will come and talk about the snow plowing process. “I found out for the first time the term for snow left at the end of a driveway after a snowplow: a windrow! And about all the different types of snow removal equipment, which all helps in answering residents’ questions.”
There are also moments of levity when people call in with bizarre requests.
“I’ve been asked by a parent to discipline their child over the phone,” Shannon laughs. “Even questions that ask for help with a crossword puzzle or very personal medical questions; I have to decline those calls.”
Why did Shannon apply to the City of Toronto?
“I wanted to work for the City because I live downtown, so I was looking for something proximity-wise,” she says, adding that she is now able to walk to work. “I was also attracted to the pay and the potential to earn benefits.”
But there are serious issues she says need to be addressed.
“The biggest issue with part-time work at 311 is scheduling,” notes Shannon, echoing the most frequent frustration expressed by the City’s part-timers. At 311, part-timers receive no minimum guarantee of hours. They also have to provide proof for times they need to block off because they aren’t available. Even if a day is really important to you – like a special occasion – you can’t trade your shift. That means as a part-time worker, it’s harder for you to get a weekend off.
“Last summer, I was only able to have one weekend off,” says Shannon, who hopes to receive a full-time position one day in a Division that has two part-timers for every full-time position.
Local 79 has been pushing the City to establish minimum hour guarantees so that part-timers can have reliable minimum incomes they can count on. Hours also dictate whether you receive benefits, which is especially important for Shannon, who has diabetes and needs coverage for medication.
“But it’s not just about guaranteed hours,” Shannon adds. “One of our biggest issues is about the notice of schedules; we get 7-day shift schedules that are published with only 4-5 days lead-time.”
“There’ve been times when they’ve published the schedule on Sunday for a 7-day schedule starting on Wednesday,” says Shannon, noting that the industry standard for call centres is to have schedules published 4 weeks in advance. “You just can’t plan your life when you’re sitting and waiting for scheduling.”
Working to improve her workplace led Shannon to get acquainted with her union. Sandra Higginson, Local 79’s Part-Time Unit B Officer, was looking for someone to attend a workplace management meeting — where workplace issues are discussed in person between frontline members and management — and Shannon stepped up.
“I offered to come to a meeting from a part-timer perspective to talk about scheduling,” says Shannon. “Management now says they’re working on a 4-week schedule so I can’t help but think our meetings, and the attention we’ve been bringing to part-timers, played a part in that.”
Shannon’s ability to work positively through issues with management made her a great candidate to represent her colleagues at a deeper level. Soon after the work she did at labour management meetings, Local 79 President Tim Maguire invited Shannon to sit on Local 79’s Bargaining Committee to represent the interests of Part-Time Unit B members.
“Learning about our collective agreement and getting involved with the union has taught me so much about my workplace rights and the benefits of our union — something that so many of us at 311 haven’t fully realized,” says Shannon, who’s now applied to become a union steward. “People are already coming to me with questions about workplace rights, and this experience has given me a newfound understanding and appreciation for what the union does.”
- Watch Shannon talk about her job and the issues facing part-timers at a City Hall press conference.
- See our Good Jobs TO campaign for our plan on how to improve working conditions for everyone in Toronto.