Graduate assistants, USF at odds over health premiums

After a heated bargaining session with University of South Florida officials last week, the union representing the school’s graduate assistants appealed to a higher authority Monday, calling on the Board of Trustees to meet its demands.

The request came at a virtual news conference that followed two recent protests, including one outside the home of USF president Steve Currall.

Graduate Assistants United, which represents more than 2,000 graduate students, has been in negotiations with the university’s bargaining team since January over their contract, which stipulates their stipends and benefits. Their existing contract expired at the end of June.

Related: USF graduate students roll out a new kind of protest outside president’s house

While in earlier sessions they sought higher wages, paid parental leave and dental insurance, the union is now asking that the university cover the full costs of health insurance premiums, which are set to rise, and eliminate student fees.

“During a pandemic, we can’t be burdening our lowest-paid employees with additional health care costs,” union vice president Sam Badger said.

At the last bargaining session, university officials told graduate students that the Florida Board of Governors has asked all state universities to prepare for an 8.5 percent budget cut and a 1 percent decrease in the allocation of funds because of the pandemic.

They also said the university was uncertain about enrollment and could see less tuition dollars. While USF previously funded the full costs of health insurance premiums for graduate students, those students now pay about $159 per semester, or 6 percent of the cost, an arrangement that began in fall 2019.

At last week’s bargaining session, USF negotiator John Dickinson said the university could not control rising health insurance premiums. He proposed to hold the terms of the union’s former contract until January and pay 94 percent of the increase, leaving graduate students with an increase of $15.90 to their existing total.

But union co-president Kelly Osterman rejected that idea, saying about 200 students have already dropped their health insurance since they were asked to pay, and it was dangerous for people go uninsured during a pandemic.

“You’re spinning this as doing us a favor … while still not paying us a living wage in the first place,” she told Dickinson. The minimum stipend for USF graduate assistants is $12,500 for master’s students and $17,830 for those seeking a doctorate.

Osterman said she works at least 40 hours a week and said others she spoke to on the bargaining call worked 60 and sometimes 80 hours a week.

“We are the backbone of the university,” Osterman said. “We do a significant portion of the teaching. We do the majority of the research. … The reason USF is a preeminent university is because of us. … But we’re chronically underpaid.”

Dickinson asked if students factor in the tuition waiver that the university provides graduate assistants, an average of $6,262 for in-state students or $13,904 for out-of-state students.

“Missing from your equation is that you’re a student,” he argued. “You’re a student first. You’re there to get an education and a degree. You chose this path to be able to work at the same time while seeking your degree.”

Osterman responded: “Missing from your equation is that we’re people who need to be able to pay our rent to be able to contribute to the university.” She noted the university recently agreed to give its police department employees a 1.5 percent raise.

The GAU said it hoped to continue negotiations. At the last session, Dickinson said the university’s bargaining team did not find the session to be productive and did not wish to reschedule another one at the time, but the GAU could reach out via email.

Osterman said the GAU has reached out, but has yet to hear back.

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