Petition: Abolish the Hours Cap for Graduate Employees

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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.

 

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.

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.”

New Hourly Work Restrictions: Are You Feeling the Pinch?

As you may (or may not) know, the administration has established a 19.5-hour-per-week cap on student employment in University positions, including library assistants, editorial assistants, research assistants, and other hourly jobs. In the past, since teaching labor was not calculated by the hour, it did not count against the 19.5-hour cap, which allowed students to supplement limited teaching income with other UChicago jobs.

WorkdayThis year, an unknown group of administrators decided to change that.Without consulting graduate students themselves (or, it seems, faculty or staff), they implemented a new payroll software system called Workday, and have used it to institute a new policy that counts TA and lecturer positions as 11-to-13-hour-per-week positions. (Who decided on this number? That’s not clear, though it certainly seems unrealistically, indeed, disrespectfully, low.) The 19.5-hour restriction leaves students who have teaching jobs with only 6.5 to 8.5 hours per week for other campus employment.

The results are already being felt: many students with library positions have had to quit those jobs, at the risk of losing their TAships and lectureships. (The pay for TAships and lectureships, meanwhile, remains stagnant at $3,000 and $5,000 per course.) And, of course, this comes on top of the health insurance deductible increase. Not only student are incomes hurt by this policy change, but library staff are now scrambling to fill vacant positions. Meanwhile, GSU organizers have begun to hear from even more students who have lost jobs or fear that they will have to choose between teaching and other paid university work in the future.  Are you impacted, or are others in your department? Please write us and let us know!

Statement on Summer 2008 Wage Increases

Dear fellow graduate students,

Graduate Students United would like to convey its appreciation to the Graduate Teaching Committee for taking much needed action to redress the dismal state of graduate teaching compensation at the University. In particular, we would like to express special gratitude to the student representatives on the committee, Jeff Rufo, Kalina Michalska, and GSU organizer Andrew Yale, who devoted their time to making student voices and concerns heard. As many have seen, Provost Rosenbaum has chosen to accept all of the committee’s recommendations, which raise compensation for teaching assistants from $1,500 to $3,000, and for lecturers from $3,500 to $5,000. All other grad student teachers have also received raises, with the exception of those paid by the hour.

The committee should no doubt feel proud of the work they were able to do, and the changes represent a significant, material improvement in the quality of life for students working on this campus. We know that we are not alone when we look at our budgets for the year to come with more optimism than before. And after almost ten years without a raise, this move was long overdue.

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Apple Action for Graduate Funding

This large protest led to the provost’s office in the administration building. See photos of the event by Neal Patel.

The original press release read as follows:

It’s Time to Take Action for Graduate Funding

Noon
Tuesday, February 19th
Front Foyer of the Regenstein Library

Join the Graduate Council’s Committee on Graduate Funding and Graduate Students United in calling on the U of C administration to take meaningful action on Graduate Funding.

After gathering at the Regenstein Library at noon, we will be walking over to the Administration Building to show that more work needs to be done on these issues. Using an apple, a symbol of education, each of us will be able to leave a message about how important it us for us as students and teachers, workers and neighbors, to see change on these issues.

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