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.

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!

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.