Things We’ve Won This Week + More COVID-19 Updates

It’s been another long week, and many of us have felt isolated and scared. But we’ve also won some real victories. Read on for details and more.

Student Life Fee Reduced to $125

Last week we tweeted about the UC Labor Council’s list of demands from the University in response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and the University’s shift to distance-learning for spring quarter. One of those demands was that the University reassess the student services fee for spring quarter. This fee, which is typically $416 per quarter if not subsidized by financial aid packages, supports things like recreation facilities, student programs and organizations, and UChicagoGRAD—facilities and programs that will not be operating next quarter. On Monday, the University announced in an email that for spring quarter the fee will be decreased to $125, a reduction of nearly 70%. Other services included in the student services fee, such as student health and counseling services, will continue to operate during the quarter.

Changes to Student Health Insurance

On Friday, the student insurance office announced via email that effective immediately, the U-SHIP non-referral deductible will be waived through spring quarter. This means that students on U-SHIP insurance will no longer be charged a $50 deductible for seeking medical treatment outside of Student Health and Counseling Services without a referral. GSU has been asking about this since before the admin announced that Spring quarter would be remote, and we’re glad to see this barrier to accessing care removed for the moment.

Have other questions about health insurance, campus services, and navigating the next quarter? Check out the COVID-19 resources page on our website. We’ll be updating the site regularly as we get more information from the University and other Hyde Park organizations, so check in often!

Some University Staff to Continue Receiving Pay during Spring Quarter

One of the big issues we’ve raised, alongside our fellow unions in the UChicago Labor Council, is whether university staff will continue to be paid as dorms clear out and classes go remote. We’re pleased to say that there has been some progress. As we wrote last week, the university reversed its plan to lay off undergrad Resident Assistants after an organized pushback campaign. More recently, the university has announced that contracted food service workers would continue to be paid as dining halls closed, and that many other university workers would have access to additional paid leave.

These are important victories, though they do not meet all of our demands. A particularly worrisome outstanding concern comes from nurses at the Medical Center, who need more personal protective equipment. We’ll continue to organize alongside our fellow unions to address these and other issues.

“Stay at Home” Order and Research

As recently as last Thursday, despite the obvious barriers posed by social distancing, the Provost wrote in an email that, “We expect that our research activity can continue.” This changed abruptly on Saturday, with another email addressing the governor’s “Stay at Home” order, which went into effect that day. With this order, means that all non-essential research activities requiring people to be present on campus have been suspended. Essential research functions have been defined by the administration as:

  • “Critical maintenance procedures to maintain long term laboratory viability and safety. For example, providing animal support and maintaining critical equipment such as computation equipment, deep-storage freezers, incubators, mass spectrometers, and electron microscopes.
  • COVID-19 research that may mitigate the spread of the pandemic.”

According to guidance received from the Vice Provost, faculty supervisors of graduate workers in labs have been instructed “to be creative and collaborative in thinking about tasks that can be performed remotely and still contribute to research in your fields.” He further noted that “Unless you have been designated ‘essential personnel’, you should work exclusively remotely. You should consult with your program directors, chairs, or advisor as applicable to help understand how you can continue your research and progress towards the degree remotely.”

Now, we all know that just because faculty supervisors have been instructed to work with graduates towards a solution doesn’t mean that they have done so. It remains to be seen how much support administration will give to graduate students who have had their lab research disrupted or whether we will have problems with supervisors attempting to either circumvent these instructions or lacking flexibility in creating accommodations for their graduate workers. It also remains an open question whether timelines and funding will be adjusted to support us as we navigate these disruptions, an issue raised in the UChicago Labor Council sign-on letter. If you are being instructed to violate the stay-at-home order for any non-essential research functions or otherwise run into difficulties, please be in touch with your steward or departmental organizer to let them know.

WOW, THERE’S A LOT HAPPENING. WE NEED EACH OTHER MORE THAN EVER.

Election Nomination Extension

Over the past few weeks the GSU Elections Committee has been accepting nominations for governing positions. The elections committee will be extending the nomination period for Steering Committee and Stewards Council until Saturday, March 14 at noon for self-nominations only. Are you looking to get more involved in our union? Consider running to represent your department as a Steward or your Division as a Divisional Representative! Ready to take on more of a leadership role? Why not run for Co-President? If you’d like to nominate yourself for a position, you can find more information on the nomination form or email gsu.elections.team@gmail.com.

Get Out the Vote

Remember to vote in the Illinois primary next Tuesday, March 17th! The primary will select candidates for President, Congressional Representative, States Attorney, and other offices.

You can find more information on registration (as well as information for voting in other state primaries) here: https://www.uchivotes.com/

Find your polling location here: Chicago Elections: Polling Locations

You can vote early now through March 16th at the locations and hours listed here: Chicago Elections: Early Voting

You can also apply to vote by mail until Thursday, March 12th (that’s today!) at 5pm: Chicago Elections: Vote by Mail

Coronavirus Updates

Tuesday, the Provost announced the cancellation of study-abroad programs as a measure to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Then last night, the Chicago Maroon published the news that all undergraduate and graduate classes will be conducted via remote (i.e., online) learning for the Spring Quarter. Official word arrived to the campus community this morning via a mass email from the University President. Despite the obvious impact to our work, we as grad workers–along with faculty and staff) were left in the dark until the last minute.

To be clear, we support social distancing for public health. We are concerned for the health of our community, and particularly those who are immuno-compromised or otherwise at risk.

We also have major questions about this news. How will it impact our work? Our financial security? Our progress in programs that have become significantly harsher around time to completion over the past year? And there are even more questions about how this impacts our students, our co-workers, and so many others. Although the President’s email made clear that “students will continue to receive financial aid and stipends,” some details are still uncertain. Will those of us who were meant to teach or TA study abroad courses receive the pay they were planning on? How about those with on-campus jobs that cannot be done remotely? The insistence on referring to our pay as “stipends,” rather than acknowledging that we are paid for our work, only heightens this uncertainty

This news also impacts the undergraduate members of our community, as most are being asked to leave their campus housing by March 22nd. There is a crowdsourced resources google sheet, that you can reach here (on last checking, you need to request permission to edit, probably due to the high volume of traffic to the spreadsheet last night).The Student Government recently announced that they have donated $10,000 to The Emergency Fund, which both grads and undergrads can access. You can find out how to apply for that support at http://facebook.com/ucemergencyfund.

As the situation unfolds, we appeal to all of our members to share stories. What questions do you have? What are your worries? What are you hearing from your division or department?

For the administration to leave us wondering about all of these questions, with no power to bargain on behalf of our members during this crisis, is a stark reminder that we must continue to push for the recognition and respect we deserve.

Have You Filled Out Our 2020 Issues Survey Yet?

This survey, our first in two years, will only take a few minutes of your time (really!), and the information you share will help to provide an up-to-date snapshot of our individual and collective concerns. By now, all of you should have received an email with the subject line “Graduate Students United Survey” providing you with a unique survey link. If you experience any issues taking the survey or have not received a link, let us know at gsu@riseup.net! If you’re interested in checking out the results from our last survey and seeing what has (and hasn’t) changed, you can always view them here.

Petition

Even amidst the coronavirus response, the administration’s proposed overhaul of PhD programs seems to proceed apace. And so too must our organizing for transparency in the changes, and to mitigate their most harmful effects. We continue to circulate an in-person petition to the new Provost, Ka Yee Lee. This is a paper-only petition, so ask for a copy from your DO or Steward. Not sure who that is? Email us at gsu@risuep.net and we’ll put you in touch with an organizer.

NLRB Rebuttals, Faculty Responses to Funding Changes, and More!

NLRB Rebuttal Period Extended

“The collective bargaining process would necessarily insert third parties, whose priorities are economic, not educational, into the learning process. This would have a potentially profound, deleterious impact on the educational relationship among the students, the faculty, and their college or university.” — American Council on Education

“The teaching is part of the training to be a professional, and is compensated as financial aid — the aid is offered to students in recruitment as financial aid, not an offer of employment.” — Anonymous (NLRB-2019-0002-0172)

These are excerpts from some anti-union comments that were submitted during the NLRB comment period that ended two weeks ago. Fortunately, there’s still time to rebut them! Earlier this week, the deadline was extended through February 28th. You can set the record straight on these comments and others through AFT’s new portal at https://aftacademics.org/weareworkers/. Once again, the more unique comments we submit, the more work we create for the Board, so take just a few minutes to respond to one or two and remind them that We Are Workers!

Faculty Also Concerned by Funding Overhaul

Last Thursday GSU hosted a funding town hall to discuss the broad changes that were made to PhD program structures in four divisions last quarter. Members got together to discuss the different ways these changes have affected them, highlighting concerns about how cap sizes would affect their department, changes in their time to degree, and more.

And it turns out we’re not the only ones who are concerned. According to a recent article in the Maroon, over 100 UChicago faculty recently signed on to a letter sent to President Zimmer and outgoing Provost Diermeier, expressing their worries about the effect of the new funding model on the University, and their concern at how it was implemented. The letter calls the new model “a purely top-down, non-consultative imposition of a comprehensive transformation of the structure and substance of academic life in this university.” It also raises concerns about how graduate programs will be able to comply with the new size caps that are being put in place: “Only by pressuring our graduate students to finish or leave in far fewer than 9 years will we be able to preserve the possibility of admitting new students, and thereby preserve the viability of our graduate programs as wholes.” The whole article and letter are worth a read and echo many of the concerns we’ve been discussing among members and on social media since October.

And as we were preparing to send this newsletter today, the Maroon published another article about the University’s response to GSU, with details from minutes of Faculty Senate meetings going back to 2017. Keep an eye out for more articles in this series, and expect a recap in next week’s newsletter.

Revisiting the Issues: Healthcare and Housing

Since we began revisiting some of the major issues identified by our bargaining survey two years ago, we’ve received many messages from members describing how they’ve been personally affected by these problems. Sadly, it seems like everyone knows someone with a negative story connected with our insurance or the Student Health Center. We’ve extended our discussion of healthcare into week four in order to give these members’ stories adequate attention.

We’d like to draw particular attention to problems with mental health services. Several studies have identified that graduate students are disproportionately faced with mental health issues. It’s self-evident that the University must prioritize mental healthcare, providing appropriate funding and resources to support our physical, intellectual, and emotional well-being.

However, as undergraduate student groups have been signalling for quite some time, the University is sorely lacking on providing those services for its students and workers. Long wait times and inaccessibility of services, including the limited hours of the Student Counseling Center, are major issues in the face of high demand. Although undergraduate groups have been leading the fight for improvements, these issues don’t just affect undergrads: graduates also depend on SCS for mental healthcare and face the same problems that impede us from receiving the care we need.

Additionally, for long-term care, SCS often relies on referrals to outside practitioners who, for graduate workers with USHIP, are paid by our insurance. It’s not unusual for graduate workers—who, again, are disproportionately faced with mental health issues due to living in precarity and the stressful nature of PhD programs—to need ongoing therapy or other services. Unfortunately, in the face of this dire need and already inadequate on-campus services, students have also reported problems with the referral process and getting insurance to pay for mental health care.

Mental healthcare, like all other forms of healthcare, isn’t a luxury; it’s an essential, and we need the University to treat it that way.

We’ll be discussing issues with housing next, so be sure to stay tuned and get in touch if you have a story you’d like to share about challenges with finding affordable housing as a graduate worker.

Transcript Changes, NLRB Rebuttals, and Healthcare

Dean’s Response to Transcript Changes

Two weeks ago week, several of our members in Humanities were concerned to find that new courses with “PTPT” call numbers had been added to their transcripts during quarters they worked as TAs or lecturers. After the changes were pointed out on social media, the Humanities Dean of Students, Shea Wolfe, sent an email to the division explaining that the PTPT “courses” were an “unintended consequence” of an attempt to note our teaching in the University’s Academic Information System and would be removed. While we’re relieved that our altered academic records will be corrected, the Dean’s message does not allay concerns about the University’s repeated attempts to redefine our work as job training that solely benefits us—the same argument that the University has been making since we held our election in 2017.

Submit NLRB Rebuttals

The period to submit comments for a proposed change to NLRB rules ended last week, but that doesn’t mean the chance to make your voice heard has passed. Over 13,000 comments have been published and are available for rebuttal until Friday, February 28. Just like during the original comment period, AFT has created a web portal where you can submit rebuttals at https://aftacademics.org/weareworkers/. While this page looks similar to the one where you may have previously submitted an NLRB comment, this is a different part of the commenting process, so be sure to write a rebuttal even if you already submitted an original comment!

Revisiting the Issues: Healthcare

It’s week four of the quarter, and we’re talking about healthcare! Two years after our bargaining survey, which identified major healthcare issues facing our members, the administration has made no effort to improve conditions.

Most of our members don’t have vision or dental insurance because it’s not paid for as part of our funding packages and costs are too high for graduate workers to afford on our own. And the insurance that we do have is woefully inadequate: amid steadily rising premiums and deductibles, members have told stories of inaccessibility, denied coverage, and dissatisfaction. Prenatal and birth care is often denied or poorly covered, and dependent coverage is expensive.

As graduate workers, we have different needs than undergraduates, and USHIP just doesn’t cover it. If the University administration were serious about improving the lives of grads on campus, they would agree to bargain with our union on the issues like healthcare that matter to us.

Guide to Healthcare

GSU’s Healthcare committee had one of 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Continue reading “Questions about Healthcare? An Exchange with Student Health and Counseling Services”

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.

The Mystery Unravels: Why the University Wants Us to Log Fewer Hours

It’s starting to come together.

At a meeting with Student Government last night, Provost Isaacs and other administrators were asked to explain the new working restrictions that have just been imposed on graduate students.

Here is what we learned: The new restrictions have been imposed because the IRS now requires the University to track our working hours in order to prove that we do not meet the threshold for employee status. If we did, the University would be legally required to provide us with adequate and affordable health insurance. Such are the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. the ACA, or Obamacare, signed into law in 2010 as one of the signature victories of the Obama administration. (You can learn more about the Employer Shared Responsibility Provisions of the ACA here.)

Hmmmm. Again, the basic aim of these provisions is to ensure that large employers provide adequate and affordable health insurance to the people who work for them. It would appear, then, that the University of Chicago’s new hourly restrictions are a way to avoid classifying its graduate students as employees.

Je suis toujours invisible
Photo by Flickr user bbyrnes59, used under Creative Commons license.

Mind you, logging fewer hours doesn’t mean working fewer hours. The weekly hour-counts assigned to TAships and lectureships are a gross underestimate of the hours we spend on our duties for these positions. And the hours we’re forced to work at non-University jobs after getting forced off the rolls at our library jobs amount to more labor that’s rendered invisible by the latest accounting trick. Graduate students are full-time employees, alright, but the University has found a way to keep us from appearing on their rolls.

In the words of one GSU member, “So, potentially, the university is cutting hours to keep graduate students out of ACA-mandated benefits, and at the same time, failing to make rising healthcare costs a budgetary priority, pushing more expensive plans onto us. These various problems are looking more like a single issue.”

Solidarity Statement: We Stand Together With University of Missouri-Columbia Graduate Employees

Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago stands in solidarity with University of Missouri-Columbia graduate employees who have stated their intention to unionize.

The struggle came on the heels of a battle over healthcare access earlier this year. Citing changes in federal law related to the Affordable Care Act, the university abruptly ended its practice of providing graduate students with stipends to buy health insurance. Although the university knew as of July 21 that the system of subsidies for graduate employees who enrolled in the student insurance plan no longer met legal requirements, affected graduate employees were not notified until August 14, just 13 hours before many graduate employees’ coverage expired. The university announced that all graduate employees would receive a one-time stipend that would cover one semester of health insurance at the rate of the current plan offered to University of Missouri students in order to make up for the short notice.

The university claimed to have the best interests of graduate employees at heart, stating that they had “been working very hard to try and create the best possible alternative for those students to whom we have made a commitment.” However, at no point were graduate employees consulted over what they considered to be the best possible alternative. And at no point, it seems, did the university consider enrolling graduate employees in the employer-sponsored plan available to faculty and other staff and allowed under IRS rules, nor did they consider a permanent increase in graduate employee pay to accommodate for the loss of the subsidy. In addition, other universities, such as Washington University, do provide subsidized health care assistance and have not elected to remove those benefits. Therefore, it is hard to see this move by the University of Missouri as anything except an attempt to use federal law to justify a cut to graduate employee benefits.

In response to the university’s attack, more than 1,200 university workers, including teaching and research assistants, faculty and alumni, organized by the Forum on Graduate Rights, walked out on August 26 with the following demands:

  • the restoration of health insurance subsidies by the spring semester, when the currently allotted funding runs out,
  • the provision of more affordable housing and childcare facilities, and
  • a guarantee that no graduate student will earn below the federal poverty line.

They declined to call off the walkout following a call for dialogue from the university administration, and in the process galvanized graduate workers and spurred a union drive. This is the kind of action that will be necessary if we are to defend our desperately needed benefits that allow us to carry out our day-to-day work that makes our universities run, and if we are to make full use of the professional development which graduate school programs are supposed to provide.

Beyond our general mutual interest as workers in higher education, our struggles are linked together. Earlier this year, we too were informed of changes to our health insurance plan that would increase out-of-pocket costs by 150 percent, at the same time that student fees used to pay health insurance premiums increased as well. With no inclusion of graduate employees in the process, the administration has both increased cost and decreased coverage, and has put the burden to cover the difference onto us. While insurance is still available to us, deductibles of $500 to $1,500 will put needed health care out of reach for many graduate employees, and will especially burden graduate parents. Your struggle inspires us to make similar demands and to organize to improve our standard of living.

Self-organization and collective action remain the best, indeed only, way to defend our basic standard of living, which is already precarious. Therefore, we, the members of Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago (AFT-AAUP) stand in solidarity with graduate workers at the University of Missouri as they form their union.