UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 8: Senior Ashley Grullon works in her dorm room on the campus as in-person classes are underway at the University of Virginia on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The three demands outlined in the petition by Northern Michigan University’s Graduate Student Advancement Committee (GSAC) to the school’s president, dean, and board of trustees prior to the start of fall semester 2020 were simple: Provide permanent healthcare solutions to all graduate employees without detracting from their yearly salary. Allow any graduate employee to teach remotely until the pandemic is over. And for those who must work in person, provide hazard pay at 25% of their standard hourly wage. 

As of Sept. 10, NMU, a public university in Marquette with just under 8,000 students, has made zero concessions to the petition’s demands, leaving graduate assistants (GAs) disheartened and fearful for the year ahead. 

GAs at colleges and universities around the country have long fought for salaries and benefits on par with those of non-student faculty members. Amidst COVID-19, the battle for improved working conditions has an increased sense of urgency. At Georgetown University, graduate workers aligned with Georgetown’s national and international undergraduate and graduate students to protest the school’s reopening plan. Students at Stanford, University of Pittsburgh, and Penn State have all pushed back against contracts mandating behavioral expectations for the prevention of COVID-19 and associated punishments for noncompliance, and students and faculty at the University of Iowa staged a sickout in defiance of administration demands for in-person education. 

In addition to issuing the petition, GSAC at NMU sent a letter to Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to no avail. They’ve also held forums with university leadership, but according to Hannah Cajandig-Taylor, a third year MFA candidate in the English Department at NMU and member of the newly formed GSAC, none of these efforts have made a difference.

At NMU, GAs are paid a stipend of $9,300 per academic year to cover a 20-hour work week, making them ineligible for full-time employee health benefits from the university. Once cost of living and taxes are deducted from their pay, which Cajandig-Taylor calculated to be roughly $12 per hour when taking into account their actual workload, few can afford to see a doctor, making it nearly impossible to obtain a letter from a medical professional excusing them from teaching in a classroom environment.

When emailed for comment, Lisa Eckert, dean of Graduate Studies and Research, replied, “NMU staff and administration have worked long hours all summer to provide the safest conditions possible for faculty, staff and students. NMU is not alone in this situation; like universities across the nation, we seek to provide the best academic experience for all students. The staff in Graduate Studies and Research are concerned with the academic success and safety of all 650 graduate students at NMU. We continue to work diligently to provide the resources available to support them in various contexts and disciplines.”

Although NMU never formally acknowledged the GSAC’s demands in writing, an email sent from Eckert soon after the petition was filed outlined GAs’ health insurance options such as Medicaid, a private insurer, or—for those under 26—coverage under a parent’s plan. While the email also mentioned that this year, services provided by the school’s health center would be covered by the university for those without insurance, it failed to include that the center could provide reference letters to secure virtual accommodations for teachers. This vital information wasn’t communicated to them until right before the start of the semester, says Cajandig-Taylor, and that the process itself could take weeks, if not months, depending on the center’s caseload. They were also late to learn that they could receive medical accomodation for mental illness. 

Eckert’s email warned students that failure to “report for duty as assigned without a valid reason or permission of their supervisor” would result in forfeiture of their position and the “immediate billing for tuition and fees as well as suspension of stipend payment,” totaling what Eckert says is more than $25,000 per 10-month academic year. 

“That obviously scared a lot of us pretty bad,” says Cajandig-Taylor, explaining that the threat of getting fired for any advocacy efforts, whether they be initiating a dialogue, speaking out publicly on social media, or not adhering to the university’s instructions for in-person classes, has created something of a lose-lose situation for GAs: while the teaching position enables them to afford expenses not covered by the program such as housing, food, and car payments (although many, including Cajandig-Taylor, have additional off-campus jobs and/or partners who contribute to the household income), their acquiescence to the administration’s demands for face-to-face teaching puts their lives and the lives of their loved ones, and the greater Marquette community, at risk. 

As Cajandig-Taylor is still covered under her parent’s insurance plan and was able to receive an accomodation note, she is teaching her creative writing class remotely this semester. But Victoria Rego, a master’s candidate in NMU’s English department and president of GSAC, isn’t so lucky. Unable to get a letter, she will be instructing writing composition from behind a mask and a plexiglass barrier to the 16 students who opted for face-to-face sessions when surveyed last May. Nine others will join virtually, though as of now, Rego is uncertain how this will play out, especially with a syllabus so dependent upon discussions and group exercises. 

Acting as GSAC president puts Rego in a precarious position, but her frustration with opaque guidelines for how to conduct lessons, sanitize classrooms, handle her students’ individual needs, enforce social distancing and mask wearing, not to mention the lack of support from tenured professors and the university’s leadership, has given her and her fellow GAs little choice. “You know, speaking out like this could bar me from future jobs,” says Rego. “But,  honestly I don’t know if I want to work for a place that has a problem with recognizing this kind of systematic injustice.”

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