(Photo by Steven-L-Johnson via CC BY 2.0; https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevenljohnson/)
Graduate employees at Temple University say they are among the most vulnerable workers at the university, but the university’s administrators are rebuffing their pleas to change the terms of their collective bargaining agreement to reflect the impacts of COVID-19.
On March 23, Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA, AFT Local #6290) — which represents more than 750 graduate students who work for the university as teaching assistants, researchers and resident assistants — sent Temple administrators an open letter outlining four urgent proposals:
- Expand health insurance coverage for all graduate workers and their dependents through the duration of the crisis;
- Immediately implement a summer subsidy program for graduate workers equivalent to their current monthly salary to be paid out in June, July, and August;
- Commit to proactively finding solutions with immigration officials, colleges, and departments to ensure that, as travel restrictions change, international graduate workers will be able to continue their employment, research, scholarship, and teaching at Temple University;
- Immediately provide prorated refunds of student fees, lab and other course fees, and other costs associated with physically attending Temple University.
According to the letter, “the over 750 TAs and RAs that make up TUGSA’s bargaining unit cost Temple on average less than $2,400 per month in wages and healthcare. Yet we do over a quarter of all the teaching at Temple and regularly contribute to groundbreaking research and make spectacular artistic creations. In this time of global crisis, local uncertainty, and public health threat, Temple University can lead among its peers in securing its community of employees.”
Without the changes, says Evan Kassof, president of TUGSA and part of the Music Composition PhD program at Temple, the situation for most graduate employees will be unsustainable.
“It will be a minefield of financial and healthcare uncertainty,” he said.
“Although Temple pays graduate workers an average of $20,000 per nine-month academic year and provides a subsidy for health insurance,” Kassof said, “we are left to fend for ourselves each summer, as well as [left to] cover our dependents’ healthcare entirely out-of-pocket. Every other summer this is hard to navigate, but this summer this is just impossible.”
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Many Temple graduate employees are granted only partial subsidies to cover healthcare costs — 75%, 50% or 25% — so they’re expected to pay hundreds towards premiums during summer months, even though they stop getting paid by the university in May. Most years, the arrangement means that the graduate employees pick up temporary employment over the summer to cover healthcare costs. But as a result of the pandemic, those seasonal jobs likely won’t exist this year, and taking on more debt is not an option for most of the graduate workers.
TUGSA reported that international graduate employees, in particular, are in a precarious situation because of visa restrictions that, by law, prohibit employment outside of Temple and prevent them from receiving any public aid.
“Graduate workers from abroad face total poverty as they cannot travel home and cannot work off-campus,” Kassof said. “All of us face decisions about making rent or not, taking our dependents to the doctor or not, or returning to Temple or not. Temple University refuses to acknowledge these unique, COVID-19 related problems.”
“Temple is sitting on more than $340 million in liquid assets — it has the capacity to ensure financial and healthcare security for its workers and chooses not to,” he added.
When Generocity reached out to Temple for comment, both Morgan Zalot, associate director of issues management, and Ray Betzner, associate vice president of strategic marketing and communications at the university responded the same way: “Temple will continue to follow the terms of our collective bargaining agreement.” The agreement was negotiated in 2018 and extends through 2022.
If the graduate employees and their union haven’t been able to make inroads with the university yet, their cause has elicited support from some high-profile Philadelphians — including City Council members-at-large Helen Gym and Isaiah Thomas, and council member for the 1st District, Mark Squilla.
“These proposals are reasonable and necessary,” Squilla wrote in his letter of support for the proposals. “It is an employer’s responsibility and ethical to see their workers through a crisis by providing healthcare and financial security.”
Gym said she also wants Temple to provide the affordable healthcare and summertime stipends that the university’s graduate students need to pay their rent and maintain their health.
“Hundreds of graduate students have kept Temple University running and will do so again once we are through this crisis,” she said. “I urge Temple University to give its graduate student community the most important thing an institution can grant right now — the security to know that they and their families are safe, healthy and valued.”
For his part Thomas said he strongly supports all four of TUGSA’s proposals, and further reiterated the need to value the role of the graduate workers.
“It is in times of crisis that society shows [its] values,” he said. “I am humbled to be a part of a city that values working together to rise above a crisis. These graduate students may find the cure for the next pandemic, or the solution to prevent the next pandemic, we must value this critical work and in turn, value these students.”
The AFT, which is part of the AFL-CIO, declined to specify what further steps might be taken, deferring to TUGSA leadership for any comment.
Lindsay Bartkowski, a staff organizer at TUGSA and member of the English PhD program at Temple, said they are grateful for the support they’ve received from both AFT and AFTPA, as well as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and other labor unions on Temple’s campus.
“In addition to contacting the administration encouraging them to adopt our policy proposals,” Bartkowski said via email, “union leadership has consistently provided our members with resources they’ll need to navigate this crisis.”-30-
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