GET-UP is committed to drawing attention to the issues faced by Penn graduate student workers. We believe Penn should start engaging with these real issues and problems we face and that they should give graduate student workers a say in the solutions. Over the past two years, we have spoken to grad workers from across Penn’s campus about the issues they face in the workplace. Based on these conversations, we’ve compiled a set of testimonials from Penn grad workers and information about the current university policy (or lack thereof). Below are links to the issue pages of the major issues GET-UP has identified and some ideas (some from other grad campaigns) of how to address them.
But this list isn’t comprehensive or complete, we know new issues emerge and GET-UP is ready to listen to your concerns and committed to fighting for a union to address them. At the end of the day, we know that the best way to address these issues and create real, lasting change is through a contract. A union contract will establish a clearly communicated set of expectations for our working conditions. However, the conditions of employment need not be the same for graduate student workers in every program, department, or school. Contracts can operate at different levels of generality and specificity: while a clause concerning healthcare, for example, can apply to everyone, an article on workers’ compensation may apply to a smaller population.
Graduate students face insufficient coverage for dental and vision care, leading to mounting financial costs. Last year, just a week after GET-UP filed for our election, Penn’s administration announced they would offer grad workers a 50% discount off the $400+ dental plan. Coincidence? We think not! This has made the cost more reasonable for some students, keep those fingers crossed that this benefit continues to exist without our contract!
I’ve incurred thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket dental expenses for root canals and other unavoidable procedures, despite having purchased Penn’s dental plan. These costly procedures were essential to my health, but were not covered by Penn insurance.
— Anonymous, Graduate Student in School of Arts and Sciences
Student-led efforts to address the lack of diversity and challenges for grad workers from marginalized backgrounds are often stymied by the administration. A union can’t solve the diversity problem in higher ed, but it can work to create space in which students can have a say over building a more inclusive environment.
The extra emotional and intellectual labor that comes with being a grad student of color at Penn – especially when you are often the only person of color in the room, is draining. For all the talk about diversity and inclusion, change has been slow to come. I don’t want to just wait and hope things get better before I burn out. A union could put the weight of all the graduate workers behind our neglected interests.
— Graduate Student, School of Arts and Sciences
Support for families remains sporadic and inadequate. This covers everything from health coverage for family members to flexibility in accommodating many types of family structures and systems. Graduate school shouldn’t require the sacrifice and challenge many face in trying to support their families.
As an Ed.D., woman, person of color, I’m faced with unique obstacles of having to struggle more as a doctoral which affects me financially and personally. It should not be that I have to choose between starting a family and getting an education.
— Victoria Singh Gill, Reading, Writing, Literacy, Graduate School of Education
Personally, I am pushed to constantly thinking of getting another job to make our ends meet, meanwhile working day and night to finish the research projects and helping take care of the baby (because we cannot afford daycare).
— Anonymous, Graduate Student in the School of Arts and Sciences
Funding varies dramatically between and even within schools. For many students, the reality is also that funding packages don’t match the expected time it takes to complete our work. Yet, this information isn’t always shared with incoming students, nor are the stories of how students cope with finishing their degrees without necessary funds.
If my funding package had matched the length of my degree, I would be able to focus on my research instead of being anxious and distracted about my finances.
— Miranda Weinberg, Educational Linguistics, Graduate School of Education & Anthropology, School of Arts and Sciences
While we could be earning 3 times more money working in industry, we decide to share our passion for research with Penn, devoting our time and our effort to do high-quality research. But only Penn seems to be benefiting from this research, since we are not compensated enough.
— Anonymous, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
I have tried to find external funding, but all I’ve gotten so far is rejection letters. Unless my wife can find a job next fall, we’ll be running out of money around September.
— Aaron Freeman, Linguistics, School of Arts and Sciences
For many, relationships with professors, staff and other graduate student workers are a positive and productive influence on our work. But in cases when these relationships pose a challenge in us doing our jobs, turning to the university protocols creates more confusion and ambiguity. Our current grievance procedure is fractured and inadequate, silencing graduate students when they are at their most vulnerable.
When I spoke to people about the instructor’s behavior, I was essentially told “that’s just how she is” and no change occurred. I feared going any further as I needed to complete this course to stay in the program but my ability to trust faculty and feel safe at the school has still not recovered.
— Graduate Student in The School of Nursing
Having access to adequate healthcare isn’t a fringe benefit, it’s critical to our success as grad workers. Not to mention our subsidized health insurance is opaque and inconsistent across campus. Although Penn has a large, ostensibly centralized, medical complex, navigating the system and negotiating with insurance can be time consuming, frustrating and expensive. Ultimately, this is time away from our jobs and funds that many students don’t have.
I’m here to do science not argue with insurance. We need a simpler and more centralized policy for our student healthcare.
— Graduate Student in Biomedical Graduate Studies
In 2014, on the advice of doctors from Student Health Services, I sought medical leave for a wrist injury that was preventing me from being able to do extended work on the computer. Unfortunately, when it was granted to me, I had to purchase my own insurance through Obamacare–despite the fact that I was no longer earning a stipend. This is because Penn ceases to provide healthcare to graduate student workers on leave even when they act on the advice of the University’s own Student Health Services.
— Coleman Donaldson, Graduate School of Education
When I called to find out why I was continuing to pay for charges after my deductible had been met, the Aetna representative told me that this plan was worse than many she had seen. She said that Penn had built in lots of hidden costs, like a $100 charge for any surgery that didn’t count towards my deductible.
— Graduate Student in School of Arts and Sciences
International students face many challenges with visa costs and tax issues, yet they receive very little support from the university. The Penn administration frequently opts for silence rather than offer counsel to students seeking to navigate this complex system.
I do not come from a rich family and the salaries in my home country are much lower than in the United States, so for me this was a serious cost that I had to incur after what was already a very costly application process and before paying for my plane tickets, security deposit for the apartment, and furniture. My visa expires and has to be renewed every year, so if I want to be able to travel outside of the United States, I have to go back to my home country and pay the visa application fee every year.
— Anonymous, Graduate student in Wharton School of Business
Many graduate students, 47% according to a recent study, struggle through their programs with mental health issues. Despite this staggering figure, and the clear call for more mental health resources on campus, the offerings through CAPS are still limited.
When I needed immediate mental health care, CAPS told me they didn’t have any therapists available for weeks or months. The only option they provided me was to see a therapist-in-training, which meant having all my sessions videotaped to be played back later for my therapist’s advisor. I decided that was acceptable to me, but I shouldn’t have had to make that choice.
—Graduate Student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
The work we produce as graduate student workers while at Penn is not our own and we have very little say into how our research and work is used. Without a voice in the development of research property policies, many grads are forced to relinquish their rights as a precondition of their work at Penn.
I think it is insulting that the university gets such a large cut of any IP and you are forced to give up any and all rights to your own creativity. I think that the university should encourage creativity for the sake of creativity and not for the sake of their own profit.
–Graduate Student in Biomedical Graduate Studies
Faculty, staff, and undergraduates are consistently covered by Penn’s workers’ compensation protections for those who are injured on the job. But graduate students workers are not and many struggle to receive the care they need when they are injured on the job.
As a former lab safety officer, I am very aware of the inadequate manner by which the university addresses safety issues for grad students working in labs. In the Chemistry Department, instead of going to Occupational Health if we are hurt on the job we have been told to go directly to the emergency room. While Occupational Health staffs physicians who have knowledge of chemical incidences and the effects on the body, the ER has no such expertise. The current procedure also involves students paying for our own emergency care expenses as the university has explicitly told us that graduate students do not get workers’ compensation if hurt at work.
— Graduate Student in Chemistry, School of Arts and Sciences