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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Graduate assistants deserve a better contract

Over the past several months, Graduate Assistants United GAU has been bargaining with UF administration to end fees and raise the minimum wage; include specific health care language that guarantees dental and vision insurance; and protect graduate assistant families through family medical leave and child care.

The current efforts to reasonably improve the contract of GAs appear to have stagnated, and the existing working conditions undermine the effectiveness of our services to The Gator Nation.

For the past 30 years, GAU has made it possible for GAs to have tuition waivers, workload limits, minimum stipends, GatorGradCare, fee deferment, academic freedom, due process, fair evaluations and the right to file grievances. These gains have been significant, but student fees (which have increased by 138 percent since the 2001-2002 academic year) and health care changes (dental and vision were recently dropped when switching insurance providers) have significantly reduced our already meager benefits, and the current contract needs to be adjusted to reflect current costs and living expenses.

The problems with the current contract not only affect GAs: Ask an undergraduate student if they would like to have a teacher with a toothache, bad vision and no access to child care. We teach half the undergraduate courses at UF and also conduct a significant portion of the research on campus.

Our proposals to administration are very fair and economical. The 2012 Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines indicate that for a family of one, an income of $11,170 per year would be considered poverty. Our current minimum stipend is $10,000 per year, and we propose to increase it to $11,000 per year. This increase may not seem very significant, and it’s not — these folks will still be earning poverty wages — but it will go a long way to ease the burden for some of my Corry Village neighbors who are GAs and are supporting a family of four.

Fees at UF are dramatically higher than most peer institutions. At Michigan State University, for example, virtually all GAs are exempt from fees. GAs at Oregon State University receive a $300 rebate for fees from the university and end up paying $205.47 per semester. UF charges roughly $1,100 per year in fees, and many GAs take second jobs to pay these fees, diverting attention from their degree program, their teaching, their research and their capacity to mentor undergraduate students.

The complete lack of family and medical leave protection for GAs is deficient at best and reckless at worst. Many graduate assistants that have children over the course of the semester continue teaching within a week of giving birth because taking a leave of absence means they are no longer employees of UF, and neither they nor their infants qualify for health insurance. No one should have to choose between their own health and that of their newborn child.

These are just some examples of the current issues and bargaining items affecting all of the nearly 4,200 graduate assistants at UF. UF’s refusal to address these issues is a disservice to its reputation.

Today at noon on the Plaza of the Americas, GAU will be holding a rally to draw attention to the bargaining process. I invite all graduate students that care about their livelihood and all undergraduate students who care about having teachers and mentors that can offer all the quality and attention they deserve to join us in support of a better contract for GAs.

José R. Soto is the co-president of Graduate Assistants United. You can contact him via opinions@alligator.org.

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