Cristina Popescu lives paycheck to paycheck. She considers herself lucky.
She has a list of what she can afford with her $13,000 yearly salary as a graduate assistant: Rent. Utilities. Phone bill. Car insurance. Food.
The rest — $720 a semester — goes toward paying graduate student fees to UF.
"There’s no entertainment budget; there’s no trips," the UF health services research doctoral student said. "There’s nothing left, nothing extra."
Popescu, 40, isn’t alone in her struggle.
She is one of about 4,000 graduate assistants at UF who works at the university as a teaching assistant, teaching her own classes and working in research labs. About 1,000 of these graduate assistants live below the federal poverty line, said UF political science doctoral student Kevin Funk.
They can be paid as little as $6,500 per year, and 188 of them are, he said. And while that’s supposed to be for only 10 hours of work per week, Funk said graduate assistants work full-time regardless of their employment status.
Being a graduate student is like a full-time job, he said.
This year, Graduate Assistants United, the labor union that represents UF graduate assistants, has proposed various changes to UF’s chief negotiator Bill Connellan to increase graduate assistant salaries and decrease fees for students living in poverty. Every proposal has been rejected.
But Popescu still considers herself fortunate — she’s healthy and unmarried.
She said she can’t imagine how she’d manage if she became ill. If she were paid more, she said she’d use the extra money to fix cosmetic damage to her car from a recent accident. She’d also like to visit a dentist and an optometrist. She hasn’t seen either in years.
Popescu grades papers, works as a teaching assistant, attends classes and works with students. Her biggest challenge is fitting that all into the 20 hours per week she works.
Funk said graduate assistants do "anything and everything under the sun here."
"In fact, the university could not function without us," the 33-year-old said.
Funk is a member of GAU’s bargaining team, and he said he fights for changes to employment contracts.
He said he recognizes UF’s budget is tight, but to him, it means graduate assistants are needed more than ever. Funk also said he is in favor of UF’s preeminence plan. The better ranked a university is, the more likely graduate assistants will later find academic employment.
"At some point they’re going to realize that we are an integral part of this institution, and they can’t raise the profile of this university without bringing us along with them," he said.
Living in poverty
Popescu has applied for food stamps, but she doesn’t qualify because she’s an international student.
She can’t work more than 20 hours per week. She doesn’t qualify for a federal loan.
"The money is what it is and there’s no way to get more," she said.
But Connellan said he doesn’t believe graduate assistants are living in poverty. The federal poverty level — $11,770 per individual, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — is based on a 40-hour work week, he said.
Because graduate assistants making the minimum stipend are being paid for working 10 to 20 hours per week, they can’t be considered to be living in poverty, he said.
Ioannis Ziogas, a UF political science doctoral student and the GAU bargaining chair, said the problem isn’t about how many hours graduate assistants work, but rather the inequality in their pay.
Some graduate assistants working 10 hours per week receive the minimum salary — $6,500 a year — while others working the same amount can earn about $20,000.
Ziogas, 35, said the bargaining team’s main goal is to shorten the wage gap among graduate assistants.
UF Provost Joseph Glover said he recognizes some graduate assistants are not paid as much as they should be, but he doesn’t agree with GAU’s proposals.
"Their position is they want a lot of weight for people on the lower end," he said. "We think that would be unfair to the people who are working hard, who are at the higher end of the pay scale."
To get their point across, GAU delivered a basket to Glover filled with items to show what graduate assistants can’t afford to buy with the $720 in fees they pay per semester, such as grocery bills, a bra, a condom and diapers.
Glover said he understood the basket was a sign of frustration from GAU, but it did nothing to change his position.
"I regarded it more as a piece of performance art than anything else," he said.
The basket now sits in Connellan’s office. He said it was irrelevant and will not affect his position either.
"They’re very convinced of their position, and I’m not convinced of their position," Connellan said. "That’s the crux of it."
Tug of war
When GAU and Connellan began negotiating graduate assistant salaries and fees at the end of August, Ziogas said GAU members were optimistic.
"There was this aura of, ‘Let’s work together. We can do this,’" he said.
GAU’s first proposal tied graduate student fees to graduate assistant salaries, making them proportional, Ziogas said. They didn’t ask for salary raises.
Connellan came back after about a month of discussions and said the proposal would cost UF too much, but he still seemed willing to work out an agreement, Ziogas said.
In October, after many informal meetings and phone calls to rework the numbers, Connellan said he couldn’t accept any aspect of GAU’s proposal.
"That kind of took us aback," Ziogas said. "We didn’t understand why we had gone through all this effort."
Then the back and forth began.
Both UF’s and GAU’s initial proposals were met with negative reactions from each side.
UF proposed a 2-percent salary raise and a $100 fee relief. Connellan said this is the most he could give.
But that’s still not good enough for GAU, Ziogas said. UF’s proposal would give more money to the graduate assistants making the most money. GAU came back with two proposals that combined aspects of UF’s and GAU’s previous proposals.
Both were rejected.
Then GAU took a new approach. In their proposal, the group looked at all the money UF works with to give raises and fee reliefs — $1.9 million — and divided it evenly among the total nearly 4,000 graduate assistants.
This amounts to about $500 per graduate assistant. GAU proposed everyone get a $400 raise and a $50 fee relief. Those making less than $14,300 a year will receive an extra $50.
Connellan rejected this proposal, too, saying those at the bottom are receiving larger percentage raises than those at the top.
"They’re talking absolute dollar terms," Connellan said. "We’re talking percentages."
Ziogas said he doesn’t want to talk percentages.
"Percentages don’t put food on the table," he said.
Mary Roca hates when Connellan singles out the English department.
The UF English doctoral student said he does it often, and she feels like he values science-related departments over departments focused on the humanities.
Connellan said he doesn’t think one department contributes more to UF than another. It just costs more to hire some graduate assistants, like those in engineering, than others, like those in the English department.
Roca, 25, said English graduate assistant stipends tend to be on the lower end of the spectrum.
"The people who come to the University of Florida for the English department do not come because of the stipends," she said. "They come because we have really great faculty."
Roca said English graduate assistants are supposed to work about 15 hours per week, but she said she spends about 25 hours a week prepping for class, teaching, grading and meeting students. She’s still taking classes for her Ph.D., which requires five to 10 hours of reading a week.
Roca said about 100 English graduate assistants teach lower-division English courses. Some of the courses are required for undergraduates.
Roca received her bachelor’s degree in English from UF, and she said the transition from an undergraduate to a graduate student has been disillusioning.
"It’s a very crushing reality to realize that the university does not prioritize us even when they benefit from our labor," she said.
Popescu doesn’t regret her decision to come to UF.
Although money is tight, she said teaching undergraduate students is worth it. She enjoys helping them discover their passions. But she said she still wishes UF administrators would understand the stress of living paycheck to paycheck.
"It’s difficult to give your students your full attention and be really uplifting and excited about what you’re teaching when you have all these struggles in the back of your head," she said.
She doesn’t believe graduate assistants will see much improvement in their salaries and fees this year, but she said she’s hopeful for change next year.
Connellan said he’s sticking to his proposal: the 2-percent raise and $100 fee relief. He’s hoping an agreement can be made soon, or else UF or GAU would have to declare impasse. And he doesn’t want that to happen.
"That’s fairly time consuming," he said.
Funk said he thinks Connellan will realize there are graduate assistants who are vital to UF and are living in poverty.
"I think he’s going to see the light," Funk said.