March 2020

The COVID Cliff: Underfunded Graduate Workers in Crisis

Imagine that degree of disconnect—urging employees who have to work several jobs and find external support just to make ends meet to set up a rainy day fund. Every day is rainy for us.

by Thomas Messersmith

On Tuesday, March 3rd, I sat in a small back room in the McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland at College Park (UMD) with around twenty or so graduate students, circled around a computer. We were listening to a graduate student from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) discuss their recent strike and its disastrous outcomes. Utilizing the only leverage that graduate student workers have, they chose to withhold grades for that semester in a wildcat strike that attempted to force an increase in their funding sufficient to cover their essential living expenses, such as their monthly rent. About 80 graduate students participated in the strike, and a few weeks ago they were all either summarily dismissed or informed they would not be hired again.[1]

After their dismissal, my fellow graduate students and I at UMD decided to plan some sort of action to support the striking workers at UCSC. While we were eventually able to organize a demonstration, it was largely overshadowed by the COVID-19 outbreak—an outbreak that makes our situation as graduate student workers even more dire and precarious. As things have gone from bad to worse for graduate workers laboring under the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clearer than ever that higher education requires massive reform to address the widespread abuse of the most vulnerable within its ranks.

Graduate student workers around the country have long been in an unstable position. At the University of Maryland, we are not even technically considered employees of the University, and thus do not have the rights of employees, such as collective bargaining. Maryland graduate students have been working for years to secure those rights. We worked with legislators to change our status and allow for collective bargaining, and recently came close to getting a bill to that end out of committee to receive a full vote, despite opposition within the state government and the University’s administration. But eventually, like all the efforts before it, the bill was essentially shelved.[2] Once again, the people in power—especially the university administrators who stood to profit off of the cheap labor of graduate students—decided that the concerns of graduate student workers were either too expensive or just not important enough to warrant actions. They could simply deal with the matter at a later time or, perhaps, try to wait it out until we forgot.

Photo from the March 11th UMD demonstration in solidarity with UCSC & graduate workers’ rights at Maryland. Photo by Joe Ryan, reprinted with permission from The Diamondback.

So, as we gathered in the library to determine what we wanted to do about the situation at UCSC and our own plight, we decided to hold a demonstration. We would hold a teach-in and rally, both in support of UCSC and to marshal support and awareness for our cause at Maryland. Over the course of the next week, we planned, we made posters, we emailed graduate students around the campus, and we attempted to gather as much support as we could in such little time. But as our preparations continued, the specter of the virus infected our campus.

From the beginning, the coronavirus loomed large over our meetings. Shortly before that first meeting on March 3rd, we were told that all summer abroad programs had been cancelled.[3] Some of our companions had been working on implementing a summer abroad in Argentina for months; all of it just went up in smoke. Then, on March 10th, the day before our demonstration, the announcement came that UMD was going to online-only classes after an extended Spring Break.[4] Our demonstration, and indeed our lives, began immediately to unravel. 

After much debate about whether or not we should even have the demonstration in light of the rapidly evolving situation, we eventually decided to persevere and hold the demonstration, but in a scaled down fashion.[5] In the end, this seemed to be a metaphor for our lives going forward—everything we had wanted to do, but scaled down. The demonstration, our teaching, our livelihood, all of it was scaled down.

Striking graduate workers and supporters from UCSC. Their struggle for equity set off a wave of solidarity protests and organizing including at UMD. Photo by Dan Coyro, Santa Cruz Sentinel.

In truth, our lives as graduate student workers had always been minimized. Not in the amount or quality of work we do—that remains high, and the quick pivot to online teaching has only highlighted our adaptability in the face of adversity—but economically, we are perpetually scaled down. Graduate students at the University of Maryland have some of the worst ratios of cost-of-living to stipend amounts in the country, with the minimum graduate stipend being around half the estimated cost of living for a single adult in Prince George’s County, where the University is located.[6] Many of us can only continue to exist through a mix of second or even third jobs and support from loved ones. For myself, in addition to my many side-jobs, the bulk of my support comes from my wife. For years, she has used her salary to help us survive. But as the pandemic continued to spread, that too would be in question.

The university demanded that we quickly switch to online classes (something many of us had never done), work with professors who had no idea what they were doing (partly as a function of this quick and unusual shift, but also due to their slow and sometimes even hostile embrace of technology), and to do so while still receiving only our pittance of a stipend from the University to which we have given so much.

Meanwhile, the economic downturn has left us all wondering about our position. What about the summer funding that many of us need to survive? Would our fellowships be affected, or possibly cancelled altogether? What long term results would this pivot to online classes have on the future of the academy? Would it lead to the eventual elimination of graduate student workers altogether? As of yet, we still do not have answers to these questions.

After years of the administration dismissing our calls for higher pay by saying we should simply “buy less coffee” or—with a wink—“eat less avocado toast,” and insisting that we are better off than we say, the disastrous effects of our under-funding were finally apparent.

Furthermore, those of us with second and third jobs suddenly found that work begin to evaporate as restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, and countless other businesses closed their doors. After years of the administration dismissing our calls for higher pay by saying we should simply “buy less coffee” or—with a wink—“eat less avocado toast,” and insisting that we are better off than we say, the disastrous effects of our under-funding were finally apparent.

In the past, administrators had urged grad students to prepare for unforeseen circumstances with a three-to-six-month emergency fund. Imagine that degree of disconnect—urging employees who have to work several jobs and find external support just to make ends meet to set up a rainy day fund. Every day is rainy for us. Never mind that we had been screaming about the virtual impossibility of budgeting yourself out of systemic problems at the top of our lungs for years. After all, they would say, “we were graduate students once, too,” despite that being at a time when a stipend could actually pay the rent. Really, according to them, this was our fault.

Finally, on March 18th, after the rapid decline of business (and one day before the University announced we would have online only classes until the end of the semester), my wife was laid off from her job at a hotel in DC. No longer having a normal income while still having a normal DC area rent is troubling to say the least. Furthermore, we don’t know when this will end. She’s been told that it will be 30-90 days, but in such a rapidly evolving situation, it’s hard to know for sure. And with summer approaching, and thus my teaching contract expiring, I’m not sure what will happen if both she and I are no longer able to draw a paycheck. Though her job had left us in a slightly better financial position than some of my peers, our reserves will eventually run out. After that, I really don’t know what we’ll do.

For years, we as graduate student workers have been arguing that our compensation does not fit the level of work that we do. Administrators argue that being paid in tuition remission should be enough. But, as we’ve said over and over, you can’t eat tuition remission. Tuition remission doesn’t pay the rent. And it certainly doesn’t fill the coffers of an emergency fund, no matter how little coffee you drink or avocado toast you eat. For years, graduate student workers have been standing at the precipice, looking off a cliff and screaming for help. But if you stand at the edge of a cliff long enough, eventually something is going to make you fall off. And for many of us, that shove in the back might be this pandemic.

Thomas Messersmith is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park. He was a recipient of the Fulbright-Mach Study Award in Austria for 2018-2019, where he conducted research for his dissertation, tentatively titled “‘God Rather than Men:’ Austrian Catholic Theology and the Development of Catholic Political Culture, 1848-1888.” This dissertation utilizes both lay and Church sources to explore the ways in which theological and political shifts in the late Habsburg Monarchy influenced each other, ultimately creating a new national and transnational Catholic political culture.

Further Reading

[1] Nicole Chavez, “California University Fired 54 Grad Students Who Were Wtriking for Higher Pay,” CNN, March 1, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/29/us/university-california-santa-cruz-strike-grad-students/index.html. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, UCSC graduate student workers have moved their strike to an “online picket,” believing that UCSC has been using the pandemic to further undercut their demands; “Response to ‘Operational Changes in Response to COVID-19 Virus,’” Pay Us More UCSC, March 10, 2020, https://payusmoreucsc.com/response-to-operational-changes-in-response-to-covid-19-virus/.

[2] Though the bill is not officially dead as of writing this article, it is increasingly unlikely at this time that it will get a vote; Angela Roberts, “At Heated Hearing, UMD Grad Students Fight Again for Unionization Rights,” Diamondback, February 24, 2020, https://www.dbknews.com/2020/02/24/collective-bargaining-senate-umd-college-park-graduate-assistant-unionization-rights/.

[3] McKenna Oxenden, “University of Maryland, Towson University Cancel Spring-Break, Summer Study-Abroad Programs Amid Coronavirus Concerns,” Baltimore Sun, March 3, 2020, https://www.baltimoresun.com/health/bs-hs-coronavirus-spring-break-20200304-b4pfv5v5d5ccjkzwn5xfqt4qni-story.html.

[4] Nick Anderson, “University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins and Nearby Regional Colleges to Switch to Online Teaching Because of Coronavirus,” Washington Post, March 10, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/american-university-others-switch-online-teaching-because-coronavirus/.

[5] Angela Roberts, “UMD Graduate Students Demonstrate in Solidarity with Strikers at UC-Santa Cruz,” Diamondback, March 12, 2020, https://dbknews.com/2020/03/12/umd-graduate-students-collective-bargaining-uc-santa-cruz-mckeldin-strike/.

[6] The minimum “living wage” for a single adult with no children in Prince George’s county, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, is $35,036, while the minimum stipend for an incoming graduate student at the University of Maryland is currently $17,802; “Living Wage Calculation for Prince George’s County, Maryland,” Living Wage Calculator, MIT, https://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/24033; “Stipend Levels for Graduate Students and Fellows,” University of Maryland, College Park, April 19, 2019, https://gradschool.umd.edu/sites/gradschool.umd.edu/files/uploads/docs/fy20_ga_fellow_stipend_memo_final.pdf.

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