Welcome

Featured

We are Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago. We’ve been working since 2007 to improve the lives of graduate students and gain recognition for the work we do at this university. Together, we’ve won dramatic pay increases, better healthcare, improved parental leave policies, stipends for childcare, and a freeze in Advanced Residency tuition. We have joined with our peers at public and private universities across the country in calling for the abolition of all tuition and fees for graduate students, and in seeking the right to organize and bargain collectively for our wages and benefits.

We also serve as sounding boards and advocates for our peers, and seek structural solutions to individual grievances. Above all, we support each other in our shared venture of earning an education, and a living, during the years we spend at this university.

To get to know us better, you can read about our history here. If you have questions or concerns about what a graduate student union is for, please visit our FAQ. We also invite you to read and contribute to our evolving Survival Guide, a resource written by and for graduate students at the University of Chicago. Finally, we invite you to join the mailing list for our weekly newsletter, come to our next quarterly meeting, and consider becoming a dues-paying member. Join us!

Guide to Healthcare

GSU’s Healthcare committee had one its more active years in recent times. Following the dramatic hike in out of pocket payments (the amount one pays before the insurance kicks in) on the university insurance plan, announced just before the start of the previous academic year, many of us came together to organise against it, and collaboratively better understand how healthcare works (or doesn’t) for us here. We generated some documents, and also organised to build pressure on the university, preventing any further deterioration of our insurance this year. Some of our members work with the Student Health Advisory Board, and through that were involved in a variety of activities, including generating a survey to gain a sense of student views on healthcare, and a townhall where students could ask questions to the Dean and directors of healthcare services on campus.

Through these activities we developed a better sense of the three key areas of concern that we had made note of in the 2015 Survival Guide: 1) costs were the biggest concern, along with concerns about costs not being communicated properly, 2) lack of information, especially regarding the insurance and what is covered, 3) some people said that they avoid the student health and counseling services because they expect to face, or have faced, racial or gendered prejudices, or have had to deal with practitioners who are not sensitive to cultural differences. Accordingly, we have tried to produce some documents as part of the expanded 2016 Survival Guide, in an effort to pool experiences amongst ourselves, should it in any way help fellow grad students find their feet in a difficult scenario. Please do write to us if you feel your experiences or knowledge can help us improve this document, or if you have unanswered questions. We will continue working to build a movement for better healthcare at UofC: if you would like to be involved with that campaign, or wish to discuss anything else pertaining to health here at UofC, please get in touch with our healthcare committee (gsu@riseup.net)

The university health insurance plan (U-­SHIP), managed by United Healthcare Student Resources, is not as bad as it could be. It covers an okay range of services, at least relative to the high cost of health insurance generally. It is comparable with the best platinum plans available on the Illinois marketplace, though that might not be saying much since the large and relatively young student body who get this plan should allow the university to bargain low prices. There remain significant issues with the plan, and the university could certainly purchase a better plan by paying more. For instance, other universities in the vicinity with recognised unions have much better plans. You could check out the University of Illinois, Chicago plan if you wish. This document you are reading is meant to be a brief introductory note to help make the system work for you. It is divided into the following sections:

I) to help navigate the system
II) important locations
III) costs
IV) dental/vision care

I) To help navigate the system

  • the insurance plan requires you to get your primary care from Student Health Services (SHS) (sometimes referred to as the Student Care Center). If you don’t go there first to get a referral for health services, you may be penalized by the insurance plan. A part of your student life fee goes towards paying for the SHS, and services you subsequently avail there are usually (but not always) without additional charges. However, it is good practice to always clarify these matters with reference to your particular condition when visiting. Also, since you depend on an SHS referral to avail of the benefits of the insurance, it means that if you have delayed paying your student life fee you are in effect left without an insurance for the time being. SHS is no longer a walk-in clinic, you will need to schedule an appointment to be seen there.
  • if it is an urgent matter during out of office hours, it is strongly recommended that you contact the university’s nurse advice line (773-­702-­1915) for a referral. If you encounter any disputes with the insurance company, such official referrals will be critical for you to defend yourself from paying the full bill. However, the university’s nurse advice line is outsourced and run neither by the university nor by the insurance company. Possibly because of this reason, there have been cases of the nurse advice line not entering the referral correctly, making it difficult for the student to retrieve the information when needing it to later dispute that charge. Hence, record the time, duration, and the name of the nurse you talked to, and save the phone bill that shows your call record. (The phone bill may not be sufficient proof for the company though.) If not, make it a point to mention the fact that you have been referred at every juncture possible.
  • you are not required to make a payment at the time that you visit a doctor. It is your legal right to refuse if asked. Your bills are generated after the visit, and it is only after they go through the claims process that you are expected to pay anything. Also, if you are being treated at the UCMC, you may qualify for “charity care” because almost all graduate students are low wage earners.The hospital uses this to tout its support for poor people, though, as a “Non Profit,” it pays no income or property taxes and in exchange is legally required to provide a certain amount of subsidized care.
  • the process for applying for charity care is relatively simple. Go to the following webpage, where you will find a .pdf of the financial assistance form. Fill out the form. Under the employer, list the University of Chicago. You will need a copy of your most recent federal tax documents, as well as a copy of your driver’s license or other official ID. Once you complete the form, it can either be mailed (with accompanying documentation) to the address listed on the website, or you can take it in person to Outpatient Services, 1A on the first floor of the DCAM building (to the left right when you enter the building). You should receive a reply within a week notifying you of your discount. You can find more details about disputing bills in general in the Survival Guide document titled “Disputing your medical bill.
  • healthcare providers will usually not be able to tell you the cost in advance. However, it may be good to ask, at least for estimates. Also enquire if it is covered by your insurance. Apart from asking the healthcare provider, you can often call the insurance company, if it isn’t an emergency situation, to see if they can clarify how a treatment or service might be billed.
  • any time that you get a bill that is unexpectedly high, doesn’t make sense, or contradicts what you were told originally, it might be worth it to call the doctor, SHS, the student insurance coordinator, and/or the insurance company. Folks have been billed erroneously for a variety of things, and a lot of calling and asking questions and clarifying often allows one to save hundreds of dollars. It’s unfortunate that we have to do this work, but it can often be worthwhile not to take every bill as the final word on what you might owe out of pocket. At the same time, do not just sit on a bill past the deadline for making payments, they will send a collector to your house without hesitation, and you don’t want that happening.
  • there are a number of doctors and nurse practitioners who work at SHS, some might be a good fit for you, some might not. If you meet with someone you feel comfortable with, you can request appointments with that person when you schedule a visit. This way, you can feel like you’ve got a primary care physician who knows you and your medical history.
  • If you need hospital care, the University of Chicago Medical Centre (UCMC) will often turn out more expensive than other hospitals. If you are being referred to the hospital if may be good to ask the doctor or nurse making the referral what your other in-­network options are -­ there is usually a tendency to automatically refer people to the UCMC. [The insurance covers more costs if you visit a healthcare provider with whom they have an agreement, rathern that an ‘out of network’ provider] It should be noted, the UCMC is supposed to be a good hospital, and especially if it is a complicated operation there may be grounds for considering the more expensive treatment. Again, low-­income grad students are usually eligible for some amount of subsidized care.
  • the SHS provides a range of preventive care (e.g., physicals, regular gyn screenings, HIV and pregnancy testing) at no cost. Give them a call (773 702-4156), take advantage!
  • you can get contraceptives for free by getting a prescription from SHS, they are covered by the insurance. SHS can (at least in theory) provide long-­term prescriptions and renew them on request.
  • thanks to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), you can get birth control prescriptions and IUD insertions at in-­network clinics (such as the OB/GYN clinic at the UCMC) for low/no-­cost WITHOUT A REFERRAL. Contact the United Health Insurance Coordinators on campus to learn about other in-network providers.
  • many students will qualify for IL All Kids/ Medicaid, which covers normal birth and prenatal care 100%. U-­SHIP is notorious for failing to cover basic prenatal care without a lot of wrangling, so it makes sense to apply for Medicaid even if you have U-­SHIP, just to cover your bases. Keep in mind that not all providers accept Medicaid, so you will need to check in advance.
  • there are 2 Student Health Insurance Coordinators, who are available to meet you in person, or discuss over email or phone, anything pertaining to medical insurance. Do note, they are employees of United Health, the company that provides the insurance.Janice Thomas and James Abernathy.Telephone: (773) 834-4543 (press Option #2); Email: uchicagoadvocates@uhcsr.com.
  • Julie Edwards is the Director of Health, Promotion and Wellness, and is also there to address questions about our insurance. She is an university employee. She can be contacted at (773) 702-8247 or julieedwards@uchicago.edu.

II) Important locations

  • the university’s Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS), in the Office of Campus and Student Life, oversees provision of health care for students and negotiates with United Healthcare about the terms of student health insurance. It is divided into the Student Health Services, Student Counselling Services, and Health Promotion and Wellness. The SHCS seeks input from the Student Health Advisory Board (SHAB), but SHAB, like any student advisory body (including Graduate Council), has no formal decision-­making power when it comes to matters of university administration.
  • the SHS (Student Health Centre) address is 860 E. 59th Street, R100, and phone number for appointments is (773) 702-4156. Go down S.Ellis to E. 59th, then turn right on 59th and keep walking till the Goldblatt Pavilion Entrance. After you enter you can show your card at the desk and ask for directions -­ you have to go left once inside the building to reach SHS.
  • the Student Counselling Centre has moved to a new address. It’s now at 5555 S. Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637 . The entrance is on 56th street. Find more about counselling and mental health in the “Guide to Mental Health” section of the guide.
  • if you have a regular prescription you need filled, the pharmacy in DCAM (Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine, 5758 S. Maryland Avenue, (773) 834-­7002) is often cheaper than the Walgreen’s or CVS in Hyde Park.
  • Health Promotion and Wellness is at 950 E. 61st Street, 3rd Floor, Chicago, IL 60637 . They organise things such as play time with therapy dogs, yoga sessions, stressbusters such as back-­rubs, etc.
  • United Healthcare’s Insurance Coordinators are located at Woodlawn Social Services Center; 950 E. 61st St., Rooms 368 & 370.

III) Costs

The cost for the 2016-­17 UofC U-­SHIP for students is $3,615, paid in three quarterly installments of $1,205. Depending on your department and offer package, the university may be directly making these payments, or leave you to do so. If you have to purchase coverage (i.e., the University is not providing it as part of your funding package or you are not covered under a spouse’s plan or your parents’ plan), you should explore comparable alternatives on healthcare.gov before deciding to pay for USHIP out of pocket – see our Obamacare guide. Foreign nationals on student visas are also eligible to purchase insurance on healthcare.gov. And depending on income level, whether or not you are an US national, you will likely be eligible for federal subsidies to help make the premiums more affordable. With the federal subsidies, a graduate student earning an average salary might potentially save $1000-­1500 for comparable coverage through the IL Marketplace.

If you are a returning student, since your previous year’s U-­SHIP lapsed at the end of August, you are eligible within a one month window, till 30 September, to find a plan on the exchange/marketplace through the special enrollment period, but the university’s internal deadline effectively means that you must find coverage on the exchange by 15 September. New students may also be eligible to buy a plan during the special enrollment period. Do note, the national enrollment period for 2016 is open from November 1 to December 15, but since we need to confirm our insurance choice with the university by 30 September you must apply using the special enrollment period and again during open enrollment. If you miss the University’s deadline to waive USHIP, any changes after that have to meet United Healthcare’s criterion for mid-­year changes, which are not likely to be nice.

Dependent coverage has generally been very expensive through U-­SHIP. If you have children, you can look into IL All Kids, a State-­subsidized program for children’s health care. For the lowest income bracket, which includes many graduate students, there is no deductible and very few co-­pays. However, not all providers at the University of Chicago Hospital take All Kids/ Medicaid, so you may need to seek a provider elsewhere. The Friend Family Health Center at 55th and Cottage Grove is associated with the University and accepts All Kids, for example. Thanks to Obamacare, spouses do not have to pay the exorbitantly high premiums for USHIP as they had to, but preferable insurance options may still be available on healthcare.gov. It is generally not advisable to purchase USHIP for children: cheaper coverage is available on healthcare.gov or via Illinois Medicaid and CHIP programs. You may also want to look at our Obamacare Guide and Guide to Childcare.

You can find the details of the USHIP insurance package here.

IV) Dental/Vision

You can opt to add Dental and Vision coverage to your health care plan. It is usually possible to take these plans for the whole year, or for a 6 month period spanning roughly the Winter and Spring quarters. Unless you think you are going to need significant dental work in the coming year, the dental insurance is probably not going to be cost-­effective for you. You can find the three packages offered through the university listed here, and if you consider purchasing any of them be sure to check with your prospective dentist which plan they take. For regular cleanings and x-­rays, you are better off simply paying out of pocket. There is a discount card included with your U-­SHIP that may get you a break on dental services from various places in the city. Many dentists will also reduce their charges if you explain that you don’t have insurance. Also, tread carefully if considering Groupon deals, they may not be advisable -­ while the cleaning itself can be a good deal (depending on the provider and so on), it has been reported that the dentist invariably suggests complicated and expensive follow-­up. The University of Illinois at Chicago student dental clinic is a good, cheap way to take care of routine dental care needs, though you may need to pay on the spot.

The university’s vision plans, in contrast with its dental plans, can be a good deal. You can find the details of the two plans offered this year here. For a 6-­month premium, you can get an eye exam with only a $10 copay and significant benefits towards glasses or contact lenses. If you need vision correction, you will probably come out ahead with the vision insurance. However, there are some exemptions that may surprise you, and so this may vary depending on your prescription. There may also be other factors to consider: international students, or those visiting other countries at any point in the year, often find it cheaper to get their eyes checked and purchase new glasses outside the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Response to Trigger Warning and Safe Spaces Letter

To the University of Chicago Community:

Two weeks ago, University administration issued a letter to the incoming class of 2020. This letter, written ostensibly in order to reassert the institution’s commitment to the values of academic freedom and diversity, explicitly states that the University does not support the use of “trigger warnings,” nor the creation of “safe spaces” on campus. The administration superficially justifies their opposition to such ideas by claiming they are at odds with free and open academic discourse. The letter, in fact, warns incoming students to prepare to be confronted by sensitive topics without prior warning and not to look for safe spaces. However, what may seem a defense of freedom of expression is, in fact, a deeply disturbing attempt on behalf of the administration to curtail not only the ability of students to speak and behave freely, but the introduction, however incidental, of hate speech, ideological violence, and entrenched power into academic discourse.

Unequivocally, free and open discourse is crucial to the flourishing of a healthy and productive academic community. And it is  precisely on the grounds  of ‘free and open discourse’ that one can reproach the University’s arrogant and intimidating message delivered to the mailboxes of its incoming students, thinly veiled as expressing its commitment to intellectual rigor. In the name of diversity and freedom of thought, the University dissuades students from shying away from debates or engaging in forms of dissent (like asking to “cancel invited visitors because of their topics might prove controversial”), but this is a biased and narrow characterization of the value of free and open discourse; one that overlooks its importance beyond the strictly defined academic space. Free and open discourse is in fact key to ensuring a dialectic exchange between the university and its surrounding community. This is particularly relevant in the context of southside Chicago and the Black Lives Matter movement. It took years of battles, in the form of petitions, sit-ins, and protests, before the University heeded the demands of the Trauma Center Coalition and pledged to open a trauma center at Holy Cross Hospital (here you can read the TCC statement). Before conceding the opening of a trauma center, the University responded to TCC’s actions by banning eight protests from speaking on campus. The “no-trespass warning” is one of the many instances that testify to the administration resistance to freedom of speech and expression.

Academic freedom is a complex issue, one that should be treated with due finesse and specificity. So, let us be clear: supporters of safe spaces and trigger warnings are not against difficult, dangerous, or emotionally troubling ideas being discussed, taught, and written about. This is not an attack on free speech; this is an issue of creating, sometimes quite literally, spaces in which those who have experienced personal or collective trauma may feel that their voices are being treated with the seriousness and sensitivity often perfunctorily granted to (and perfunctorily assumed by) others who have not undergone or been societally boxed into such troubling conditions. These ideas are, contrary to the claims of the letter, absolutely about protecting freedom and equality of expression and identity for everyone on campus, AS OPPOSED TO those whose protection is granted merely by their identity conforming to some imagined sense of what is normal. In short, this is about making sure that those who have not been treated with respect and dignity by virtue of their societal privilege are given equal footing. A university is a collaborative project: everyone has a right to be listened to and taken seriously.

It is also important to note that these ideas are new. Trigger warnings originally emerged as flags for trauma-related content that might “trigger” post-traumatic symptoms in victims of trauma. At the discretion of the lecturer, their use has been extended to other sensitive topics, such as politics, religion, racism, and sexuality. To warn students about potentially sensitive topics, however, does not amount to allowing students to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” as the letter claims. Trigger warnings are a sign of consideration. They can be used to support more rigorous engagement with challenging material, giving students the ability to prepare to grapple with difficult topics, thus enhancing discussion and learning opportunities. As didactic and pedagogical tools, trigger warnings might contribute to create “enabling classroom environments.” In this respect, the workshop Creating an Enabling Classroom Environment” –  initially set up by Graduate Students United’s Women in Academia group in collaboration with the Organization of Students with Disabilities, and now run as a funded programme by the Center for Teaching – is worthy of note. The event constitutes a unique opportunity to discuss tactics that help create enabling learning spaces. It should therefore be at the discretion of the lecturer and educator to adopt trigger warnings when necessary. To impede the usage of trigger warnings a priori is a manifestation of constraint – an imposition – rather than an expression of freedom.

What, then, are “safe spaces?” We define a safe space as a place where students can go to find a group of supportive allies that will ensure they are able to practice the mental and emotional self-care they need to be able to rigorously engage with the wider university community. Safe spaces do not denote spaces where individuals can retreat to avoid dialogue. They are spaces where certain groups can go to to hang out, temporarily, with their peers and develop strategies to make their voices heard. Within this context, protests should not be condemned as actions that jeopardize academic freedom. To the contrary, they are legitimate tools to express disagreement and, therefore, exercise freedom of speech.

It is important to observe that the university already operates safe spaces such as the LGBTQ safe space, making the letter’s dismissive attitude toward them all the more puzzling. The administration’s systematic attempts to curb criticism on campus and adopt punitive measures to suppress those forces that might challenge the status quo testify to its unwillingness to practice what it preaches. Only a few months ago, former president of student government, Tyler Kissinger, was threatened with expulsion by the administration a few days before graduation for having facilitated a sit-in and for having encouraged students to raise questions during a supposed open discussion with the Provost. The administrators’ regular dismissal of the request for more transparency in the way the UCPD operates or more protection for victims of sexual assaults indexes their reluctance to heed the needs of the community and engage in truly open dialogue.

Safe spaces and trigger warnings are new technologies of collective and self, new methodologies of organizing agitations for justice and group identity. To ignore them is tantamount to condoning racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, redpill-thinking, and all the other attendant forms of hatred and bigotry. If the University is truly a collective project, as we firmly believe, we therefore have an obligation to make our community as just, equal, distributive, weird, supportive, and intersectional as possible. Only through solidarity can real intellectual rigor emerge. For this reason, the recent NLRB ruling that recognizes graduate students the right to unionize acquires even a deeper significance. It is a historic moment for graduate employees. The recognition of bargaining rights opens up new possibilities for dialogue between different constituencies on campus. In contrast to the administration’s anti-union rhetoric, we believe that the right to organize will provide the basis for the creation of a truly democratic academic environment.

The shallowness of the language in the University’s welcome letter reflects an institutional history of dismissing the demands of students and community members asking for a higher quality of life coupled with a fierce unwillingness to recognize the nature of inequality and the presence of hate speech on campus. To suggest that students must sit quietly, must behave in only one way, and speak in only one way, goes against the most fundamental ideals of the University of Chicago. The demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings amounts to demanding that power does not curb open discourse and that those that are invited to be part of our community be given the right to actively alter, improve, and develop the community so that everyone, not simply a select few, feel healthy, safe and, possibly, even happy.

 

NLRB (Finally) Rules: We are Workers!

Today, in a historic decision the National Labor Relations Board ruled that “student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act.” What does this mean? This decision recognizes that as graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities we are legally entitled to collective bargaining rights. Does this mean that we are automatically on the road to an union contract? No, unionizing is still our choice to make democratically and actively, and it’s one the administration will probably continue to discourage (despite claiming to be “neither for or against”). But this does mean that as of today we enjoy the same collective bargaining rights as other employees covered by U.S. labor law, and that’s huge!

GSU issues a big congratulations to our comrades at Columbia University and the New School for taking their fight for recognition to the NLRB!

While we celebrate wholeheartedly the NLRB decision we also note that it only affirms, and gives legal status to what GSU and its counterparts at private universities have known and acted on for years: academic work is work and #WeAreWorkers. The NLRB has made the right decision in recognizing graduate students at private universities as employees, giving them legal collective bargaining rights. This is a big step forward, not just for graduate students and academic labor, but for the labor movement as a whole.

What Does This Mean Moving Forward?

This favorable NLRB decision gives us as graduate student-employees at UoC legal backing to exercise our right to unionize. We are in our full legal right to mobilize graduate student workers on campus toward building a strong democratic union that can collectively bargain to improve and more fully control our working lives.

While GSU will continue to do the work it has been doing for the past 9 years we will now be able to begin to take the necessary steps to conduct a campus-wide campaign which will allow graduate-employees at the UoC to exercise their right to collectively bargain by casting their votes for or against unionization. The process of building a card campaign has three basic steps: getting our fellow workers to sign union cards, filing for a union election with the NLRB, and voting in the election.

The next few months will be crucial as we move forward and prepare to exercise our right to organize and collectively bargain. Now is the time to get involved and there are plenty of ways to do so! Email us, ask your Departmental Organizer how you can get involved, or consider becoming a Departmental Organizer yourself! And, please be sure to vote in the upcoming referendum on our affiliation – this vote will determine which national union, if any, GSU will work with in a potential card campaign!

If you would like to become a member, please do so here.

Tax Snafu Update: Some Progress, But International Students Still on the Hook

lol taxes

CC BY-NC 2.0 by Dale Winling

This tax season is shaping up worse than most for international graduate students across the U.S., as they are caught in a costly bind between the IRS and their universities. To the best of our knowledge, at least 197 international students at UChicago alone have been asked to pay additional taxes for 2014. In addition, many are still awaiting their 2014 federal tax refunds, because the IRS claims not to have received the taxes the university withheld.

GSU formed an ad-hoc committee for international students, and following sustained GSU efforts, the administration has been taking some steps to address the tax situation faced by many international students, but the overall situation remains unresolved. GSU representatives have met with administrators twice over this issue, following which the Office of International Affairs (OIA) has been more forthcoming with additional information/updates and tax workshops.

GSU is heartened by the administration’s prompt response to this matter, and by its willingness to meet with GSU members directly to address graduate student problems. However, several concerns remain unaddressed: 1) The university has repeatedly held  that affected students must resolve the issue by dealing with the IRS individually.  Yet, the Columbia administration is dealing with the situation in bulk, suggesting that it is indeed possible!  We call on our administration to follow Columbia’s lead and fix the problem in bulk. 2) While we eagerly await a resolution of this problem, international graduate students face continued financial pressure. Accordingly, we ask that all students who have incurred legal expenses be reimbursed by the university, and that legal services be provided by the university if we are expected to continue dealing with this situation individually. 3) We ask that the university provide financial assistance to those affected.

In the last meeting with the administration, on 20th April, GSU representatives learnt that the IRS had requested information and sample cases from institutions in order to look into resolving the matter. We were told that on Tuesday, 19th April, the university was notified that the IRS did not accept culpability for this error, putting the ball back in the court of insitutions. The next course of action for institutions is to  put pressure on senators in DC, we were told. There is also a Joint Committee on Taxation, and universities are working on communicating with this committee through their DC lobbyists.

In  the meantime, some students have received their refund cheques for 2014! There’s no evident pattern in how this happened — some of these students were in conversation with the IRS, others who hadn’t even pursued their cases with the IRS received refund cheques. For those of us who haven’t received refunds, have extensions/holds that are running out, and/or are receiving additional notices from the IRS, the advice from the university is to continue contesting and not pay anything to the IRS.

 Going forward:

  • The administration proposed organizing a letter-writing event with us, where students could come and write letters to the relevant Senators / the Joint Committee on Taxation, asking them to pressurise IRS. However, such a course of action presumes that the fault lies with the IRS, at least primarily if not exclusively; and from what we can tell it is hardly clear that is the case. It appears, that the fault may lie anywhere in-between the university, its vendors and IRS, unless we take any side at its word. Columbia’s example may indeed point otherwise: their grad union succeded in getting the university to promise a solution “in bulk” by working with elected representatives to pressurise the University to act!
  • We asked  that the University communicate consistently with international students, stressing the need for weekly or fortnightly updates on the OIA website or via email. We also suggested setting up a discussion board or group so that people can communicate with each other and not feel isolated in this issue.
  • Since some students are approaching payment deadlines the admisntration  should provide templates for additional communication with the IRS.
  • We have been pushing the adminstration to cover legal fees that students might have incurred while pursuing the matter. While the administration said it could not provide such aid, they promised to  set up more private consultation times with Alejandro Young, the tax lawyer hired by the OIA, so that people have free legal help. GSU reps asked them to advertise this. While we hope this is some help, and will continue to push them to advertise Mr. Young’s availability for consultation, this still does not amount to pro-bono legal help. Moreover, should it be the case that the university is in some way culpable for this situation, the same person who provides them legal counsel is not likely to help us if there is a conflict of interest.
  • With potential 2015 refunds deferred due to extensions along with pending refunds from 2014, many students have been placed in a very difficult financial situation. We argued that the university should provide emergency financial assistance, as Columbia University for example has done. Instead, they told us that for people who are deeply affected (financially) by this situation, area Deans of Students  have been intimated of the problem and can give financial help.  Otherwise, the bursar’s office has been informed and can look into coming up with payment plans for students who can’t pay pending bills. Since they have suggested these options, we would recommend students try these routes of redress, though the promise sounds so vague it’s unclear if it will yield anything.

In sum, our organised efforts have yielded much: more information emailed to the student body after studied silence for months, a qualified offer of financial assistance through Deans and through payment plans to allow late payment of fees, offer of individual sessions with the university’s tax lawyer who specialises in taxation for foreign nationals, and a couple of tax workshops where grads could ask questions to the university about how to deal with the situation. Yet as the overall situation remains unresolved, we need to work together and build power as international grad students on campus. Join GSU’s Ad-Hoc Committee for International Students: and onward!

Petition: Abolish the Hours Cap for Graduate Employees

Sign this petition on our change.org platform!

The cap on working hours  at the University of Chicago has become untenable for the graduate student population. While the 19.5 hour cap for graduate employees at the University of Chicago has  been in place for some time now, in August 2015 the administration began including teaching hours in that calculation. With this new rule, many graduate employees have lost their jobs as lecturers, teaching assistants, and as vital part-time employees throughout the university. The hours cap has, in short, limited our access to professional development, and more importantly, to the work that many of us need in order to pay our bills.  This policy change was put into effect hastily with no advance notice, nor any explanation, in the middle of a year when employment decisions and work-study awards had already been made. The administration has yet to provide a logical explanation for it.

They claim that we are “students first” and hence should be focused primarily on our academic work. If the administration wants to continue to use this rhetoric that we are students and not employees and should thus focus on our academic progress, then they should pays us sufficiently so that we can do so. We would be more than happy to focus on completing our dissertations and research if we weren’t worried about how to pay the bills. No one is working extra jobs just for fun.

The administration’s arbitrary imposition of an hour cap disregards the following facts:

  • Limiting our ability to work adversely affects various groups of graduate students, including those that come from working-class backgrounds, non-white students, international students, student parents, and students in advanced residency.
  • Graduate employees are adults, capable of making our own decisions about their working lives, without paternalistic rules forced on them by the administration.
  • At many peer institutions the hours cap for graduate employees is significantly higher. Harvard, for instance, allows its graduate students employees to work up to 40 hours per week. At BrownUniversity and Cornell University there is no cap at all, and while they have recommendations, they treat graduate employees like adults and let them make their own decisions about employment.
  • For many student employees, teaching is a requirement of our academic programs, and hence should not be considered as extraneous employment. Additionally, the university is “double-dipping” by taking teaching pay out of the stipends of students on  the GAI on a prescribed schedule that does not work well for many individual students, and then insisting that those teaching hours be counted against the graduate student work cap. They do so using a formula that is opaque, and does not allow for any distinction among widely varying amounts of time required to lecture or TA in a specific capacity.
  • Many graduate students teach only during certain quarters each year, yet this policy prevents us from maintaining job continuity from quarter to quarter due to teaching demands.
  • Many jobs that we work are not ancillary to our “professional development,” but in fact contribute directly to it.
  • Rising costs for healthcare, in particular, but also for housing, and for the general cost of living in Chicago, make it increasingly necessary for many students to supplement an already inadequate income from the university, and this policy, poorly explained, and hastily implemented, makes it nearly impossible to do so.

With this petition, Graduate Students United demands that the university abolish the 19.5 hour cap on working hours for all graduate students.

 

Questions about Healthcare? An Exchange with Student Health and Counseling Services

There is so much about healthcare provisions on campus that just don’t seem to make sense! As our healthcare campaign has been growing, we have also been trying to collectively figure out stuff, beginning with updating the GSU Survival Guide over summer. On November 18th, 2015, two GSU members on the Student Health Advisory Board wrote to Dr. Alex Lickerman, then Assistant Vice President of Student Health and Counseling Services, and Ms. Marcy Hochberg, then the university’s insurance coordinator. They asked a number of questions that had come up in the course of GSU’s organizing and research. We share below Dr. Lickerman’s response, with his answers listed under each question asked.

  1. Should anyone wish to waive USHIP, the deadline for submitting proof of alternative insurance is 23rd October. However, since every grad is expected to have insurance from the first day of the quarter (“Active coverage from the day the student arrives on campus through either August 31, 2016 OR the end of their academic program (whichever comes first).”), it appears that this year, the insurance coverage must have begun on approximately September 28th. In effect, this would imply that a student must buy a plan that is valid starting September 1st, and therefore the actual deadline for students purchasing an insurance plan on the ACA exchange would be August 15th. Is this correct?

Many marketplace plans (but not all) begin on the first of the month. However, because it is still before the deadline and around the beginning of the start of classes, we accept plans beginning October 1st to waive U-SHIP coverage. Many other alternate private plans begin coverage on the date when payment is received. Therefore, there is greater flexibility in alternatives than solely what is available through the marketplace (and in point of fact, many international students do not review those plans, because they are not eligible for subsidies.) Although we want students to have coverage from the time they arrive, we do try to allow students time to review requirements and research alternatives. Thus, as long as they can show active coverage by the U-SHIP deadline, they can waive successfully through the online system. Obviously, depending on which plans they are reviewing, the providers may place some constraints on application times, as far as when coverage commences.

Since open enrollment begins every year on July 1st, and students have almost 4 full months to consider alternatives, and 2 months from when U-SHIP actually expires to apply for plans on the marketplace — although they can submit an application sooner, indicating that their coverage will terminate on Aug. 31 – we feel there is a generous amount of time provided to research marketplace plans.

  1. The university announced over email last December (12/23/2014) that 6th and 7th year PhD students “who are at candidacy” would have their health insurance premiums funded. What happens to students who are not ABD by their 6th year? Do they entirely forfeit eligibility for health insurance coverage in the 6th and 7th years? Or, do they forfeit it only until they achieve ABD status? That is, if a student is not at candidacy by the beginning of their 6th year, but defends in Winter of the 6th year (for example), would they have forfeited their entire 6th and 7th year insurance coverage? Might it be possible to clarify if there is any university policy about this, or if this decision is left to the discretion of certain individuals? And further, is there any policy guidance on what kinds of criterion can lead to one being excluded from this coverage? Does one’s department have any say in this matter?

This inquiry should be directed to UChicagoGRAD and the Deans of Students offices. Student Health & Counseling Services administers U-SHIP but does not determine how funding is provided for graduate students, including for student health insurance.

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Let Graduate Employees Decide How to Manage Their Own Working Lives

Graduate Students United categorically denies the administration’s oft-repeated talking point that graduate employees are students first. We are from day one employees of this institution, as well as being students. All of our labor—research, writing, teaching, coordinating workshops, planning and attending conferences, etc.—produces value for the university. We receive compensation and benefits for the work that we do here: that is an employer-employee relationship. We think thou doth protest too much on this point, showing that the administration has ulterior motives in repeating this talking point ad nauseum. It is not difficult to discern what these motives are: under current labor law, graduate students at private universities are considered students and not employees, and we thus have no collective bargaining rights. It is clearly in the interests of the administration and the board of trustees that this status quo continue, and it is clear that they have done everything in their power to preserve the appearance that graduate employees are just students. We believe that the 19.5 hour cap is in place as another attempt to preserve this myth that we are students and not employees.

According to the University of Chicago Employee Handbook, certain employment benefits kick in for employees that work 20 hours or more per week. Is it just a coincidence that student employment is capped at 19.5 hours? We think not. If graduate employees were receiving employment benefits like PTO and paid vacation and sick time, it would be harder for the administration to maintain the myth that we are students and not employees. The administration belies their own position when they claim that “like faculty, PhD students must juggle multiple responsibilities related to their scholarship and teaching.”

We are glad that the administration is trying to be flexible about the 19.5 hour cap. But many problems remain. The policy is inherently unfair: many graduate employees have teaching requirements that are a part of their academic program, while others do not; some graduate employees have recourse to financial assistance from their families, while others do not; international students cannot seek employment outside of the university; student parents often need to work more to provide for their families, and so on. Leaving the decision of whether or not to allow students to exceed the 19.5 hour limit entirely in the hands of the Deans of Students is, in our view, a misguided and dangerous policy. It opens the door to unequal treatment of graduate employees, without any oversight, and without offering any form of recourse to grads who think that they have been treated unfairly. Without a clear policy to guide decisions, and without a system of oversight, decisions are too easily open to nepotism or punitive motives.

It is also misguided–and insulting–to assume that graduate employees need a policy like this to manage our time and our lives. By this point in our careers, it is perfectly within our power to balance our teaching, research, and other work on our own. Other universities explicitly recognize this fact, and treat their graduate employees like adults deserving of basic respect: at Harvard graduate employees can work 40 hours a week if they so choose; Brown and Cornell have recommendations, but they leave the decision up to the grads. Chicago should follow the lead of these ‘peer institutions’ and let us make our own decisions about our working lives.

Cut Administrative Salaries to Ensure Living Wages for Grad Employees

In their recent email announcing stipend increases and higher teaching wages, Provost Isaacs and Sian Beilock claim that it is part of the University’s mission to “ensure students can operate at the highest level.” Assuming that this is not mere rhetoric, but represents an actual and ongoing commitment of the administration, let’s consider what this would actually look like. First, a living wage, such that, for example, a single student can live comfortably in a one-bedroom apartment, or a student parent can live comfortably and provide for their children, without having to supplement their financial support from the University by finding other employment. The median rent for a one-bedroom in Hyde Park is roughly $1,000 a month, or $12,000 a year, minus other costs like electricity, internet, etc. The Federal government claims that affordable housing should not exceed 30% of annual income. Thirty percent of the new GAI level of support of $28,000 is $8,400, or $700 a month—well short of what it costs to live affordably in a one-bedroom, or even a studio apartment in Hyde Park. Base-level compensation, by these standards, should be at least $40,000 a year, and then tied to inflation. If the University wants to continue to use this rhetoric that we are students and not employees and should thus focus on our academic progress, then they should pay us sufficiently so that we can do so. We would be more than happy to focus on completing our dissertations if we weren’t constantly worried about how to pay the bills.
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Second, affordable healthcare. Health costs are, and have been for the last several years, increasing at a rate that far exceeds increases in compensation. In 2008, when GSU was campaigning to push the university to pay for our premiums in the first place, the premiums for the USHIP plan were $590 a quarter. Now they are $1144 a quarter, a 94% increase since 2008. As opposed to this, from when GSU’s organising forced the administration to double TA wages to $3000 in 2008, they have now been increased by 33%. The Student Life Fee, most of which (roughly 77%) pays for Student Health and Counseling Services on campus, has increased by around 45% since 2008 when teaching wages were last increased. It is currently $1,089 a year, $1,375 a year if a student needs access over the summer. This year the deductible for the USHIP health plan increased 150% from $200 to $500 for in-network coverage, and 100% from $500 to $1,000 for out-of-network coverage. Hence, healthcare costs for a student that uses their plan and wants access to Health and Counseling Services throughout the year are nearly $2,000 (if not more), entirely offsetting the increase in GAI funding and increases in teaching wages. And this doesn’t even take into account dental and eye coverage. Given the existing state of financial precariousness for graduate employees, the increase in health costs are such that they will present a deterrent from seeking healthcare—hardly a state of being conducive to operating at the highest level as academics.
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The situation is even more bleak for graduate employees post-GAI. Let’s say that one taught a stand-alone lecture course in all three quarters—a nearly impossible prospect, of course, but the best-case scenario in terms of compensation. At the new level of $6,000 per course, that would amount to an annual income of just $18,000. Affordable rent at this level would be a mere $450 a month. This means that advanced graduate students inevitably must seek other employment to make ends meet, increasingly taking away the time that is necessary to complete their degree. Again, if the administration is truly committed to ensuring that graduate employees “operate at the highest level,” then they should compensate us so as to make this possible. What would this look like? It would look like the Faculty Forward campaign of the Service Employee International Union’s call for compensation of 15K per course. In addition to the meagre pay, students in advanced residency are hit with AR tuition to the tune of nearly $2,400 a year. After year seven, they are required to pay for their own health care, meaning that if they wish to stay on the USHIP health plan, they must cough up roughly another $3,500 a year just to pay premiums. As it is, it is virtually structurally impossible for graduate employees in many doctoral programs to finish their degree in five or six years. The University, rather than addressing this structural problem, is trying to force advanced students out of their programs through financial attrition. This is wrong.
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“The University, rather than addressing this structural problem, is trying to force advanced students out of their programs through financial attrition. This is wrong.”
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The administration will say that this is pie-in-the-sky utopian thinking, disconnected from the pragmatic realities of running such an institution. We do not think it utopian to claim that graduate employees deserve to live as adults and have a decent standard of living, without having to take on crippling debt, or seek financial assistance from our families. This is simple economic justice. Here’s an idea: let’s cap all administrative salaries at $200,000 a year—which is roughly what U.S. congressmen and women make, and surely plenty of money for anyone to live very comfortably on. This money could then be used to increase compensation for graduate students and other employees. How much money would be saved? Well, the University of Chicago has around 20 key administrators (“administrators who make more than $150,000 and are designated by the IRS as ‘key employees’”), who take home on average about $900,000 a year. This is a total of roughly 18 million a year in administrative pay. If these salaries were capped at $200,000 a year, that would leave around 14 million dollars extra per year that could be used to increase pay for graduate students and other poorly paid employees. That would be a good starting point.
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We are pleased to hear that the administration has committed to an ongoing dialogue with graduate employees about these issues. It is good that they seek feedback from the Grad Council. This, however, should not be used as an excuse to avoid or ignore feedback from other sources, including Graduate Students United. Grad Council is not a democratically elected, nor a representative body. They have no claim to representing the interests of graduate employees. Graduate Students United, on the other hand, has such a claim: we have over 600 members across all divisions. We regularly seek feedback from our members, and the graduate student body as a whole, on issues of concern through our member’s meetings, townhalls, surveys, and email correspondence. If the administration is truly committed to an open dialogue that takes seriously the concerns of graduate employees, then they must allow Graduate Students United to have a voice in that dialogue.

Great, a Raise! Now How About Admitting We Work Here?

In early December, University of Chicago graduate employees received a pair of emails from our Provost, Eric D. Isaacs, announcing substantial wage increases for graduate employees in the Social Sciences and Humanities Divisions, as well as the Divinity School and the School of Social Service Administration. These two e-mails say it loud and clear: the University is listening to GSU, as it has been since our founding back in the spring of 2007. After all, the last pay hike for graduate TAs and lecturers on this campus — way back in 2008 — was one of GSU’s first achievements. Since then, every substantial improvement in our work and study conditions, from the freezing of AR tuition to the creation of childcare subsidies, has come in response to GSU campaigns.

 

We regret that administrators continue to avoid acknowledging their implicit dependence on GSU’s advocacy on behalf of graduate students. After all, this latest win — a 20% payraise for TAs and lecturers — comes in response to the fees campaign we launched last year, which highlighted the steep rise in fees and our growing inability to pay them on our stagnant wages. Our townhalls and rallies were packed, and our petition to abolish the Student Life Fee got over 500 signatures and substantial press coverage. We also took the fight to Student Government, packing into a meeting with Dean Rasmussen to insist that administrators respond to our demands. Most recently, we worked hard to get to the bottom of the newly enforced 19.5-hour cap on graduate student employment — a new rule that administrators have had a hard time justifying.

 

Provost Isaacs’s e-mail confirms, and as our own research suggests, that the real reason behind the cap on employment is the University’s stake in keeping us legally classified as students, not employees. Isaacs writes, “We view graduate student members of our community first and foremost as students.” In keeping with this assertion, Provost Isaacs frames the wage increase as an expression of concern for the well-being of students.

 

As graduate students and employees who make our living working at this university, we say enough is enough. While we are certainly students, we see no reason why that fact should continue to serve as a fig leaf for terrible wages. Of course we see why administrators would be so eager to insist that we are “first and foremost students”: it helps to slow down our efforts to win formal recognition as workers entitled to form a union and bargain collectively for future wage increases and other improvements in our conditions of work at this university. We see a direct connection between the 20% payraise we’ve won and the recent successful unionization campaign among UChicago’s non-tenure track faculty. In light of this recent victory, and other victories among academic workers at private and public universities across the country, U of C administrators have good reason to worry. At the University of Missouri this summer, we’ve already seen what kind of power students can gain over their working lives when they organize to demand recognition as employees of the universities they attend, and which they sustain with their labor from the moment of their arrival on campus.

 

Like these other academic workers, we are employees of the university where we pursue our graduate studies.All of our labor—research, writing, teaching, coordinating workshops, planning and attending conferences, etc.—produces value for the university. We receive compensation and benefits for the work that we do here. It is not difficult to discern why the administration avers that we’re not workers. It is clearly in the interests of the administration and the board of trustees that the status quo continue. But until the University recognizes us as employees with the same collective bargaining rights as any other worker, we won’t stop organizing.

Sometimes It Just Works: Organizing to Win at Mizzou

This past summer, after the University of Missouri administration announced sudden and draconian cuts to their health insurance (an issue we know well), GSU developed relationships with grad student workers there. They fought back and won a powerful victory.

Over the past couple of weeks, the fight at Mizzou led by ‪#‎ConcernedStudent1950‬ against racism on campus (also not an unfamiliar issue at U of C) has wrestled its way to public notice, led by the hunger strike by grad student Jonathan Butler. We were thrilled this weekend when the football team, led by its Black players, announced that it would strike in solidarity until the university president resigned. We were further thrilled when grad student workers announced a two-day strike in solidarity. And within the last few minutes, President Wolfe has resigned.

Institutional racism is as much a labor issue as health insurance. And solidarity across segments of a university has won a major victory today. Congratulations and thank you, Mizzou students/workers.

Much media on the topic has, perhaps predictably, treated the football strike as the sole factor in bringing about this change. Important as it was, it was but one action among many, fostered by and fostering other activism. This timeline from the independent newspaper The Maneater offers a great overview of all that has been happening on the Mizzou campus around racism, grad labor, health access, and more.