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USF Graduate Assistants Fight For Pay, Health Care Coverage

While the University of South Florida's Tampa campus has 1,700 faculty and 1,800 staff members, the largest part of the workforce is the school's 2,300 graduate assistants.

During contract negotiations that have lasted for almost a year, the union representing that group is pushing USF for a pay raise and continuing full healthcare coverage.

Philosophy Department graduate assistant Megan Flocken serves as president of the University of South Florida chapter of Graduate Assistants United

She said GAs are full-time students working towards an advanced degree, such as a PhD or Masters. At the same time, the university hires them to work 20 hours a week, doing such things as grading assignments, doing lab research, serving as administrative assistants or teaching.

As a matter of fact, they teach about 50 percent of the classes at USF.

But Flocken said that doesn't mean the other half of classes are covered by professors.

"So if you’ve been lucky enough to sit in a classroom in the University of South Florida, it is very likely that you would have been instructed by a graduate assistant or an adjunct," she said.

Adjuncts technically do not fall into the same category as GAs. They're paid by the class – between $1,600 and $2,500 a class at USF, with no benefits or protection from a union.

Many times, adjuncts are former graduate assistants who have received their degrees, but couldn’t land a professor’s position.

"By and large, those of us who are working on PhDs, who had thought even five to ten years ago that we would surely become professors within higher education are more and more facing a type of job market in which adjunct jobs are the reality," Flocken said.

Taking that step back to the adjunct level costs graduate assistants both money and benefits like health care coverage and tuition waivers.

At USF, a GA pursuing their masters makes an average of just under $10,000, plus benefits, for nine months of work; PhD students make an average of about $11,000, plus benefits.

"$10,000 a year means that they have to take out federal student loans in order to pay their basic living expenses," Flocken said. "$10,000 a year means that they have to take second or third jobs while maintaining their full-time student status and then performing their job for the university."

Credit USF Office of the Provost
USF Office of the Provost
Dr. Dwayne Smith, USF Sr. Vice Provost / Dean of the Office of Graduate Studies

Dwayne Smith is Senior Vice Provost for USF. He also oversees graduate students as Dean of the Office of Graduate Studies, and while he hasn’t sat down across from the union at the negotiating table, he talks to the university’s bargaining team regularly.

Smith said, rather than criticize the pay, look at the benefits as well. Those include $2,400 dollars a year in health care coverage that the university picks up, along with $6,200 in tuition costs the university bears.

"If one were to take that entire compensation package and prorate it out what it’s worth, the compensation package for our masters students is about $26 an hour, and for our doctoral students, it’s about $28 an hour," Smith said. "If they were to work in the outside sector, that’s the amount of money they’d have to make per hour working 20 hours to get the same deal they’re getting here at the University of South Florida."

Credit USF Communications and Marketing
USF Communications and Marketing
A chart, provided by USF, shows the pay and benefits received by the university's graduate assistants for 20 hours a week of work, nine months out of the year.

Flocken’s reply? You can’t pay the rent with health care and tuition. Smith’s response – even with their studies, this is still a part-time job with a 20-hour work week.

"It’s not intended to provide, it never was intended to provide full-time support for a graduate student. But it was intended to supplement to a considerable degree the cost of their graduate education," Smith said.

In turn, Flocken points out that, even though many take second or third jobs, graduate assistants are technically banned by contract from doing so.

A new concern for the union is the university’s inclination to no longer pay for full health care coverage starting in the 2017-18 contract year.

University negotiators worry that this year’s health premium increase could become a pattern, but Flocken thinks this could drive current GA’s away from USF and keep the school from attracting quality replacements.

"If they want to raze our health care benefit, and I’m sorry, I mean ‘r-a-z-e,’ if they want to obliterate our health care benefit, making it then incumbent on GAs themselves to have to pay for that out of their pocket, it’s just going to be an untenable kind of situation here," she said.

"I think that one of the comments that really stuck with me the most...was a GA who asked 'Do you (USF President Judy Genshaft) work 42 times harder than I do?'"

"And please do note that graduate assistants, we’re not all 20 years old and healthy, many of us have dependents that we’re caring for, whether parents or children," Flocken added. "Many of us are in our 30s and 40s and many of us have a lot of health concerns."

GA’s also take exception to student fees of up to $750 a semester they have to pay – with Flocken calling it a 15 percent “tax on employment.”

"I’m awful baffled by that term on their part," Smith said. "What those are, they’re student service fees, and it’s for things like access to the Recreation Center, use of the Marshall Center, our health care center, so basically, the fees that are being paid by all students, both those who are GAs and not, including undergrads, are really fundamentally based on the utilization of services."

Smith added that the University is looking into a way to make the fees more proportional to the GA’s tuition.

While the two sides continue discussing these issues, USF has offered GAs a one-time bonus for a second year in a row, as well as a pay raise – what Flocken said comes out to an average of about $100 a GA.

The union would prefer the minimum stipend to be raised to closer to $12,000 for nine months. They would also like a 3.5 percent annual raise, reimbursement of student fees and continuing full health care coverage.

Flocken asked, that while most GAs are proud to work at USF, they want to know how university trustees can vote to give President Judy Genshaft a five percent raise to a $493,500 annual salary – plus a possible $275,000 performance bonus – while holding off on giving the people teaching classes a $2,000 to $3,000 raise?

"I think that one of the comments that really stuck with me the most in preparation for this last bargaining session was a GA who asked 'Do you (President Genshaft) work 42 times harder than I do?” Flocken said.

Flocken asks the university to help employees share in the rewards that come with USF's success.

"The University of South Florida did not exceed statewide performance metrics simply because we had a great president. It was very much because of the instructors and researchers that we have working at this university," she said.

In response, Smith said that USF has budgetary constraints placed on it by the state, as well as by the economy, but is trying to help its employees.

He added that GAs are getting a benefit that you can’t put a price on: experience.

"Most of them are working in jobs and working at positions that are absolutely essential to their career. They’re getting on-the-job training, being supervised by faculty who are very much invested in their success, and if they do well in those particular jobs, it’s going to almost ensure them at some point a position upon graduation," he said.

"So, again, they're getting a decent compensation package in return for on-the-job training," he added. "Some students just may not find that satisfactory, and this may not be a good fit for them."

The two sides sat down again last week, continuing negotiations that have seen more than half a dozen meetings since last May.

The major sticking point, Flocken said after the meeting, remains the healthcare benefits.

"We’re really pleading with them and saying, 'Look, you’ve got to leave our health care alone, keep the language in the contract as it stands, we’re already in March, why are you going to change this grave asset in March when we’re just going to be back at this table in May?'” Flocken said.

That’s right: as soon as they reach an agreement on this year’s deal, the two sides are scheduled to be back at the negotiating table to work on next year’s contract.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.