Standing up for maternity leave: Interview with Gilary Massa

i_stand_with_gilaryGilary Massa was the executive director of communications and outreach at the Ryerson Students’ Union. She is also a member of CUPE 1281. In 2015 she was fired from her job while on maternity leave. Since that time Gilary has filed a Human Right’s complaint and her union has a pending grievance. spoke with Gilary about her situation, why it matters for workers and parents and what can be done about it.   

Can you describe your job, what you did and how long were you there?

A: I have worked for the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) for almost seven years. The first three years I worked as the equity and campaigns organizer, and then moved on to take on the role of executive director of communications and outreach. The executive committee of the RSU changes every May, so a large part of my job was to provide institutional memory and support to the executive in fulfilling whatever mandate they deemed a priority in any given year, while ensuring that we were abiding by our bylaws and other frameworks that govern the organization. I also coordinated any of the union’s communication through our website, social media outlets, outreach, and any other ways we chose to communicate with our members.

This was a lot of work, but I enjoyed every minute of it. In the past seven years I was able to build some lasting and meaningful relationship with not only members of the RSU but also members of the Ryerson community as a whole. I got to work with people that were really interested in building a campus community that celebrated diversity and addressed the needs of those who were most marginalized.

Q: Is that work at the Ryerson Students’ Union no longer being done?

The current RSU executive claims that they eliminated my job because the things that I was responsible for were no longer needed. The reality is however that they are still communicating to their members and the executive committee still requires someone to provide them with institutional memory and support. None of my job tasks have actually been eliminated from the organization

They have just been given to other people, or made the responsibility of the new general manager who was hired a day before I was fired.

Q: Tell us about how the RSU executive informed you they were laying you off?

A: I received a phone call on December 1, 2015 at around 3 PM from Andrea Bartlett, president of the RSU informing me that the organization had gone through a restructuring and that my job had been eliminated. This was exactly three months into my maternity leave. I had been given no prior notice of restructuring. I wasn’t informed that my job was on the chopping block. My union hadn’t been notified either. Ms. Bartlett informed me that as of immediately I was out of a job and that I should inform employment insurance of the change in my employment status. It came out of nowhere. On behalf of the RSU executive, Andrea Bartlett has stated that the RSU eliminated my job because my job was redundant and they needed to save money.

I later found out that the day before I was fired the RSU had hired a new general manager and that much of my job responsibilities had been given to her. To me this whole thing reads like, ‘we needed to save money and paying maternity top up and a replacement for said employee is too expensive,” The way that this was done was not above board. I argue that it was illegal. According to the Employment Standards Act, it is illegal to fire someone while they are on maternity leave. But even if it was legal, none of the rules laid out for laying off an employee as set out by my collective agreement were followed. I wasn’t offered another job within the organization, I wasn’t even given a meeting with my employer to discuss the changes in my job situation. Just a simple three minute phone call.

Q: How has the termination impacted your maternity leave?

A: First and foremost it has impacted my maternity benefits, benefits my family relies on. But most importantly it has impacted my ability to take care of my baby. The stress of this situation lowered my milk supply to the point that one week after I was fired my body just stopped producing milk and I became unable to feed my child. I have been distracted trying to figure out what’s next, which has really robbed me of being able to spend quality time with my daughter. Maternity leave exists for a purpose. The first year of a child’s development is arguably the most important, and the ability for a parent to be 100% present for that first year has a huge impact on the cognitive development of a child. I have a right in this country to be a mom and have a job. My child has a right to have a mother that can take time off in her first year of life to care and nurture her. We have both been robbed of our rights.

Q: Why is important to you to fight back and not let your employer get away with this?

A: It’s important to fight this because it’s an issue of human rights. My rights have been violated. The RSU has tampered with my families livelihood. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t fight back. Plus its an important lesson to my daughter who I hope will grow up to be a person who always fights back in the face of injustice. But this is about more than just me. It’s about a woman’s fundamental right to have a family without being penalized. Women in this country have fought long and hard to ensure that women do not have to choose between having a career and starting a family. The RSU’s decisions sets women back at least 30 years. For me this fight is about making sure that this happens to no other women.

Q: Why do you think so many people are outraged by your layoff and have rallied to your support?

A: I think people are outraged because they see themselves in the situation. Many are parents themselves or have a desire to be parents. They see how dangerous it could be if the RSU gets away with this. I think a lot of people are asking themselves what would our country look like if employers could get away with firing people because they are on maternity or parental leave? I also think that for many people it’s a reminder that the rights we take for granted are not always guaranteed.

Q: What can people do to support you and the broader fight for a woman’s right to maternity leave?

A: Contact the RSU and hold them accountable for this.

Get engaged, become aware of your own rights as workers.

I’ve heard too many horror stories of employers getting away with breaking the law. No doubt, going up against an organization and/or company with big money can be stressful, scary and expensive. But you can’t put a price on human rights. It was individuals like us who had nothing to lose but our dignity that won us these rights in the first place. We owe it to them and we owe it to ourselves to hold employers accountable.

Q: You are well known community activist. Do you think you are being punished for your politics?

A: I guess not well known enough. The RSU thought they could fire me and that I wouldn’t say anything about it. Clearly no one sent them the memo on my activism.

The truth is I don’t know if I was fired because of my politics. I have actually never worked with this group of people before. They don’t really know me. If they did they would know that I’m a professional, and while I do have strong opinions about many issues, and have opinions on the role a students’ union should play on a campus, I know that my job first and foremost is to support the executive committee in whatever work they decide the students’ union should take on.

Q: You are also a black identified Muslim, and you wear hijab. Can your employer firing you be characterized as racist or Islamophobic?

A: I have never worked with this particular set of employers so I can’t point to a particular incident that can be characterized as racist or Islamophobic. I will say this though, I was the only black Muslim women in hijab in a senior staff role at the RSU. Visibility is important. A lot of marginalized students saw the RSU as welcoming because they saw people belonging to marginalized roles taking up space in a way that we are often not allowed to. The message sent by firing the only black Muslim woman in your office while she’s on maternity leave is not a good one. My fight is about my right to maternity leave, but we have to look at intersectionality for sure. The stakes are sometimes greater for women that look like me. Class, race, gender, sexuality, ability- all these things unfortunately dictate how someone has access to rights. So I think the question of ‘ could this be a race thing’ is a good one.

The matter of Massa v. Ryerson Students Union is subject to ongoing legal dispute. All comments on the conduct of the Employer are allegations and remains subject to adjudication before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

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