To sign this Letter please click on this link and fill out the Petition Form – you do not need to be affiliated with UNC to show your support. This form also includes an option to share testimonials about your experiences during this crisis.
We, the rank-and-file members of the Workers’ Union at UNC, are writing on behalf of the university workers and community members to express our deep concern regarding the support of graduate workers at UNC during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
In a previous letter and petition, UE 150 has pushed forward the concerns for UNC system workers safety and well-being during the COVID-19, sending letters to the UNC Systems Board of Governors and University Chancellors. With the spread of coronavirus across the United States, public universities are highly exposed spaces, given the amount of international travel undertaken by students, faculty and staff.
Graduate workers in every department and program throughout the UNC system have been directly affected by the pandemic, and as graduate workers we find ourselves in increasingly precarious situations. Although the University continues to send emails regarding their understanding of how difficult and stressful a time this is, such sentiments are not reflected in guarantees of funding, wider access to health care, protections for international students, fair compensation for the labor graduate workers undertake.
As the crisis unfolded at UNC, graduate workers were asked by the Dean of the Graduate School to return to work on March 13th, stating that graduate workers are an ‘important part of the time that will develop strategies to ensure that our teaching, research, and services missions continue uninterrupted.” However such sentiments and pressures are not reflected in our pay, healthcare, or contracts (if we have them).
These are fearful times for graduate workers. Many graduate students are facing hardship, with no summer income and no guarantees for funding in the future. Before the current crisis, most of us barely made ends meet, and now many of us face mounting uncertainty as we struggle to complete our own studies as well as the added challenging work of switching our departments into online entities. With the switch to online courses, many are working far more hours than required of them and having to learn a new system of teaching with no training or additional compensation. Departments are relying on graduate workers to provide free labour to implement these changes.
Many graduate workers fear that we will be penalized for not making progress on our own projects even while the resources – such as libraries, labs, and archives, – we rely on are closed. Moreover, some graduate workers in the sciences have reported being pressured to continue going to their labs, against the CDC and government guidelines. This is a textbook case of workers being pressured into working under unsafe conditions. As graduate workers we are not guaranteed funding while expecting to make progress with our work during a pandemic – this is unacceptable, especially given our meager stipends and no guarantees for income.
For international graduate workers, the challenges are even more serious. Their visas are largely tied to funding in their departments, and they are excluded from seeking outside funding for employment. Additionally, many are unable to return home because of the crisis, and those that can are not guaranteed a place waiting for them when they return, if they are allowed to return at all.
As we navigate this public health crisis, graduate workers live in a state of uncertainty and fear. We do not have the most basic of health insurances during a pandemic. We do not have guaranteed income or security. Our work and expectations have increased with no additional training or compensation. Many universities have begun to announce that they will have ‘hiring freezes’ for the upcoming year. For graduate workers on the job market, they are entering into a profoundly challenging hiring landscape with little support.
Although statements of acknowledgement from the university are nice, they do not protect us or pay our bills. Although the Dean of the Graduate School says we are an important part of the team, this is not reflected in our treatment, income or safety in the UNC system. It is because of this that we as graduate workers demand fair treatment and pay for all workers.
We are concerned for all of our community members: undergraduates, graduate student workers, post-doctoral researchers, and campus workers. The Graduate Workers at UNC especially give thanks to the essential worker, from delivering people and grocery store workers, to facility cleaners and hospital workers. We stand in solidarity with all workers as we navigate this difficult time. We stand in solidarity with those fighting for workers rights and safety.
Our demands are simple and reflect the idea that graduate workers are an important part of the workforce at UNC.
We know UNC has the resources. Therefore, we make the following demands:
- Raise the minimum income/stipends for graduate workers across the University. Some graduate workers make as little as $15,700 a year (whereas the living wage threshold in Orange County NC is around $26,000 a year).
- Guarantee that salaried and stipended workers, including graduate workers and post-doctoral researchers, will not lose pay because of extenuating circumstances created by the pandemic.
- Guarantee that all graduate workers who were awarded fellowship funds for Summer and/or 2020-2021 academic term receive in full their promised funding, no expectations.
- Offer all graduate students at least a one-semester extension on program progress milestones. This includes, but is not limited to, qualifying masters or doctoral exams, dissertation progress checkpoints and submission of the masters or dissertation, and in-state residency status.
- Guarantee an extra year of funding to all graduate students, as extensions to deadlines are meaningless without funding extensions. This has been called for by grads at peer institutions.
- Additionally, summer funding should be given to all current PhD candidates facing immediate structural gaps in their funding packages.
- Ensure that any students on F-1 and J-1 visas are able to maintain their visa status even if courses shift online, and support students who must leave the country if visa statuses change. Additionally, departments must actively aid in students seeking to maintain their visa status.
- All graduate students without funding packages who are paying out-of-pocket, who are ABD (all-but-dissertation/out-of-course work) or MFA student/Lab student who cannot access their materials in order to complete their requirements, should receive an immediate refund for the Spring 2020 term while maintaining their status in their programs.
- Ensure that advisors are prohibited from (implicitly or otherwise) putting pressure on graduate workers, or requiring them and other students do any work that exposes them to potential health risks, on or off campus, and in the case of a department member exhibiting symptoms allow for the swift shutdown of department lab operations.
- All graduate worker and student fees to be refunded for pro-rated amounts for months of March through May due to unavailability.
Moreover We Demand that for ALL Campus Workers:
- Updated definition of “mandatory employee” so that not all workers are forced to come to work unless absolutely necessary during a state of emergency. In some universities most all front line housekeepers are sent home except the leads – this should extend to all universities. Library and all office workers should be sent home.
- Provide paid leave for all campus workers, including temporary and contract workers beyond April 30 to last until the crisis has abated and state of emergency has been lifted. This leave should not draw from earned sick and vacation time. A permanent, universal paid sick leave policy for all university workers should be enacted.
- Personal Protective Equipment should be readily available for anyone tasked with working during this state of emergency, including N95 masks and gloves.
- CDC-recommended cleaning chemicals to be made available for all environmental services staff.
- For those that cannot telecommute, staggered shift schedules and outside meetings to get equipment keys, so as to avoid large congregations of workers.
- No worker should be punished or given an “occurrence” for calling in sick.
- Mandatory employee schedules to be reduced to 20 hours per week, while still receiving full time pay, to reduce the amount of social exposure.
- Ensure that working people understand that if they are injured or infected as a result of their work, they are entitled to worker’s compensation benefits.
- All workers and students should have access to free COVID-19 testing and no person should have to incur any cost whatsoever, whether in the form of copays, deductibles, or out-of-pocket costs, related to testing, care, treatment or vaccinations for COVID-19. Costs should not be a barrier to testing and treatment.
- All campus parking to be free of charge to minimize use of university public transportation services where exposure is most likely and social distancing may not be possible.
- Coronavirus related time off should not count against a worker’s Family and Medical Leave Act benefits.
- Public endorsement of universal single-payer health insurance, the federal Medicare for All Act of 2019 (HR 1384).
These are only a few common sense measures that must be put immediately into place. Now, as we face an ever-growing pandemic, it is important that these workplace protections are expanded to all North Carolina University System workers. Additionally, please sign this additional online Petition for Campus Workers here: https://southernvision.ourpowerbase.net/civicrm/petition/sign?sid=36&reset=1
In Solidarity: UE 150: The Workers Union at UNC