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GAU bargains for full-coverage health care, transparent contracts

In the first bargaining session with administration, Graduate Assistants United makes a case for
stronger compensation. ORACLE PHOTO/ALYSSA STEWART

Last year, a Graduate Assistant (GA), who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of losing educational opportunities, was reassured that their grant funding would be secured even after their professor/adviser resigned from the university. After not being paid for three weeks, they were informed that this was in fact not the case.

“I was given the impression that my contract would continue until July 2020, this was even as late as May of 2018 that I was told this,” the anonymous GA said. “In the middle of August, I noticed that my paycheck was short, so when I inquired about it, I realized that I had been working for free.

“The professor never told me that my position had been terminated.” 

USF-Graduate Assistants United (GAU), the union representing USF’s GAs, is trying to prevent situations like this from happening again. The GAU is made up of about 350-400 members who help bargain the GA contract every three years on behalf of the 2,000 GAs on campus.

Last Friday afternoon, the GAU and university officials held their first collective bargaining meeting with administration, in which they presented their preferred changes for their new contract.

USF administration will hold multiple sessions with the GAU over the next couple of months to finalize the new contract before the current one expires in August.

The next meeting does not yet have a date assigned but will be in February or March. It will include USF’s response and continued negotiations.

About 40 GAU members surrounded the perimeter of the bargaining room sporting red, blue and green “With Love, Graduate Assistants United” shirts to show their support. Within the circle were two tables opposing each other with the GAU bargaining council on one side and USF’s general counsel on the other.

The GAU presented a number of changes from wage increases to maternity/paternity leave.  However, the two most heavily discussed topics were about contract notification deadlines and health care coverage. 

Section 23.2 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement states, “Employees serving in at least one (1) semester appointment during an academic year shall be provided with a letter of intent regarding continuation or non-continuation of employment for the subsequent Fall semester by April 30, if practicable. A final letter of appointment, if necessary, shall be provided to the employee by June 30, if practicable.”

This was the case for the anonymous GA. They expressed that they subsequently received their non-continuation of employment letter in August which was after the June 30 deadline.

The issue for the GAU lies within the wording of the contract. The bargaining council considers the words “if practicable” to be an “abuse of the language.”

“We have had a number of issues with contracts not being delivered on time so we would like to avoid any issues by making sure the contract is delivered before the GA’s start date,” USF-GAU Co-President Patrick Templeton said in an interview with The Oracle. “The issue is the language because it gives the university the freedom to not meet those deadlines because they have some ambiguity with it.”

As a resolution, the GAU proposed removing ‘if practicable’ from the contract to ensure that strict deadlines are being set.

“If a student doesn’t get the contract by June 30, there needs to be a process in which the university has to notify them with status as to why they haven’t received it,” Templeton said. “Right now, there is nothing for that. Not only is the deadline soft, but the university doesn’t have to give you any information about the notice.”

The GAU is also seeking better health insurance coverage from the university, which only partially covers health costs.

The USF Student Health Insurance Plan covers a premium up to $2,410 for independents and $2,569 for dependents, according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

This past academic year, the GAs had to pay out of pocket for health care expenses for the first time, according to Templeton. This included a one-time fee of $159 to enroll in health insurance through the university.

The GAU is bargaining for the health care to be 100 percent covered.

“It was a sudden expense for a lot of GAs, especially for our international students or our GAs who have kids,” Templeton said. “That’s money that doesn’t just come out of nowhere. We feel this is important to be covered considering how low students’ stipends are.”

At the master’s level, each nine-month employee on a .50 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) appointment is guaranteed a minimum stipend of $11,052.60, according to the 2017 Graduate Assistant Handbook.

The GAs surrounding the room nodded in agreement with some people snapping to some of the points the bargaining council brought up.

Private lawyer and lead counsel for USF John Dickinson told the GAU that he understood where they were coming from but he was skeptical of them looking at things from a narrow standpoint.

“Do you have an idea of how much the university fees have increased over the years?” Dickinson said. “Do you know what the average increase has been in the nation? These are things you have to consider.”

Dickinson encouraged the GAs to provide statistics for both the university and the U.S. by the next bargaining meeting before continuing any financial discussions.

He also made points about how the “economic situation is unknown” at this time, but Templeton said after the state Legislature finalizes the budget, they will be in a better position to discuss the financial aspects in April or May.

Bargaining council member Zulqarnain Haider said he believes this first bargaining session was a step in the right direction.

“Most of the disagreement lied in the financial aspects of the contract, such as the stipends, pay wages, raises and health care coverage,” Haider said in an interview with The Oracle. “There has to be some accounting done before the university will be willing to make any decisions. So that is why they were unclear about what they can or cannot do.”

The anonymous GA expressed that they understand why the university officials had some pushbacks about the discussion, but they remain “hopeful” that there will be changes made in the upcoming bargaining sessions to prevent situations like theirs from occurring again. 

“These are changes that are not in the best interest financially of the university,” the anonymous GA said. “I had to threaten to go public with my situation before I was even paid attention to.

“We are disposable in a way — It’s an issue of power here.”