Graduate assistants bargain for better deal

USF graduate assistants said they are exhausted of the age-old assumption that living in poverty during graduate school is a rite of passage. 

On Friday, USF Graduate Assistants United (USF-GAU) began negotiations with university officials for the 2014-17 graduate assistant collective bargaining agreement.  

Megan Flocken, USF-GAU co-president and graduate assistant for the philosophy department, said key issues were poor wages, costly student fees and an inflexible unpaid leave policy.

“We have administrative figures who are making six figures,” she said. “… And yet our GAs who help this university run are making $9,800 a year.”

Flocken said graduate assistants have duties that include holding office hours, conducting research and helping instruct classes, in addition to taking graduate level courses. They are both the graders and the graded. 

In return, the university covers tuition for nine credit hours during fall and spring semesters and six credit hours during summer semester. As of 2013, 9-month employees also earn a minimum of $9,180 and covered health insurance for those working over 10 hours a week.

In addition, full-time graduate assistants may not pursue outside employment and must maintain a GPA of 3.00 or higher.

Josh Lenes, USF-GAU co-president and graduate assistant for the psychology department, said the balance between employee and student at this base level of pay is near unmanageable. 

“How many undergraduates would imagine the teaching assistant or instructor in front of the room is earning near-poverty wages,” he said. “That’s really the case.”

Effective Aug. 1, 9-month graduate assistants at the master’s level will begin earning a minimum of $9,880 and 9-month graduate assistants at the doctoral level will earn a minimum of $11,155. 

Additionally, Lenes said graduate assistants want a $700 stipend increase across the board for full-time graduate assistants.

Lenes also said another key request is unpaid leave of absence up to six weeks, such as in the event of childbirth or serious health problems. Currently, graduate assistants are allowed paid leave for up to five days. 

“Imagine that you go to the hospital to have a baby, let’s say, and you’re in the hospital for five days,” he said. “You could lose your contract on the sixth day and lose your health insurance, lose your tuition waiver and lose your whole entire appointment.”

The third important proposal aims to reduce student fees graduate assistants must pay to the university, such as Activity and Service (A&S) fees and lab fees. Flocken said nearly $2,000 in fees comprises up to 12 percent of a graduate assistant’s salary.

“It’s a backdoor tuition that we can’t really anticipate. You’re almost sucker punched,” she said. “We’re being charged a fee to work. It seems very unjust.”

During negotiations, Vice Provost of Human Resources and Facilities Kofi Glover said calling student fees an employment tax or a backdoor tuition was misleading. 

“All students pay fees, why (call) it an employment tax?” he said. 

Glover said he identified with USF-GAU, recalling his own time as a graduate assistant living in poverty, calling it “nothing new.” 

“While they are also working for the university, they are also getting education,” he said. “It’s a two-way street.”

As of Friday, Glover said there is a lot to consider and must take time to weigh the demands against the interests and budget of the university before negotiations continue. 

Though Glover sympathized with USF-GAU, he said the poor status of Florida education is to blame.

“You are unfortunately caught in between the public now that sees education as a luxury, rather than a social or a capital investment necessity,” he said. “You have a governor and legislatures who believe that you should be paying for your education rather than the public.”

Combined with the debt from credit cards and unsubsidized loans needed to stay afloat, Flocken said the burdens also discourage pursuit of higher education entirely. 

“There’s no incentive,” she said. “There’s actually many people I know in my own department who are wonderful, bright lights of people who make incredible instructors here, but they can’t afford to stay.”

Nevertheless, Flocken said some instructors chose to be “exploited” because they care deeply about all aspects of education.  

“We love the research that we’re doing, we love to teach students, we love the disciplines that we work for and we want to promote good scholarship,” she said. “I’d love to overturn the illusion that Florida is not a bastion of intelligent academic work.”