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Monday, January 25, 2021

TAA calls on UW-Madison for financial relief: ‘show us that you care about all student workers’

In a letter to UW-Madison leadership, the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) called on the university to provide serious financial relief for students, citing university policy concerning segregated fees and international student fees, as well as the current telecommuting policy affecting international student workers, as crises that “mark the difference between eating and going hungry” for some.

Segregated fees are additional charges to tuition that all students are expected to pay. Said fees go to different services and activities, like University Health Services (UHS), the Wisconsin Union and more. 

These fees, according to TAA, make up an “infinitesimally small portion” of the university’s budget —  1.5% of the university's operating budget and expenses. The TAA has been calling for the end of segregated fees for graduate workers since 2017, labeling the fees as “wage theft.” Graduate students’ segregated fees for the Spring 2021 semester are $734.30.

“Fees are unjust, disproportionately impact low-income, first gen and working-class graduate students and shift the cost of running the university onto graduate workers,” read a Dec. 7 email to graduate students from the TAA. 

“These fees amount to graduate workers paying to work at this institution,” echoed TAA president, Alejandra Canales. Additionally, many students, according to Canales and the TAA, are increasingly worried about making rent and paying bills due to the pandemic.

Meredith McGlone, the News and Media Relations Director for UW-Madison, said that “facing an anticipated $320 million shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UW-Madison is continuing to collect segregated fees from all students to maintain these important services.”

“By not providing financial relief to student workers, you are demonstrating that you value profit over our lives,” said TAA in the letter. “Show us that you care about all student workers.” 

The TAA is asking graduate student workers to withhold paying their Spring semester segregated fees until the April 2 deadline, emphasizing that “waiting to pay gives us [the TAA] time to change this harmful policy.” By withholding the mandatory fees, the TAA will leverage their collective power and buy time to organize to change the policy, according to the Dec. 7 email. 

The TAA cites Stony Brook University as an institution that has provided serious financial relief for graduate students earlier this year who organized and withheld fees. “Graduate workers play that same essential role at UW-Madison, and together, we can win full relief,” the TAA email read. 

In March, the TAA created a Mutual Aid Fund to supplement some of the losses that graduate students faced during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the fund, graduate student employees in need of urgent financial support can request aid, funded by donations from other graduate students and members of the UW-Madison community. Since its founding, the fund has raised $28,691 as of the website’s most recent update on Nov. 11.

“Graduate workers, already stretched thin, deserve our full wages — we deserve to be able to cover our living expenses, plain and simple,” emphasized the TAA. “We deserve a full remittance of segregated fees, and an end to the international student fee altogether.”

The international student fee at the university is an additional one-hundred dollars on top of the segregated fees that international students are required to pay. 

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“The international student fee is particularly discriminatory, charging higher fees to non-U.S. citizens,” said the TAA. 

In addition, earlier this month it was revealed that some international student workers telecommuting from outside of the U.S. were not being compensated for their labor. 

The Associated Students of Madison (ASM) recently passed legislation in support of international students, calling for a more robust telecommuting policy that better addresses current circumstances.

“Echoing ASM's legislation on the international telecommuting policy, we have also called on the university to pay student workers telecommuting regardless of their geographic location,” said Canales. 

Although the university, as McGlone reiterated, now plans to pay these workers for any hours logged previous to this revelation, it is unlikely that international students will be able to continue working from abroad due to policy specifically restricting hourly telecommuting work from occurring outside of the United States. Without a change from the university, that policy is likely to remain. 

In response to criticism, the university points to a number of policies and policy changes it has undertaken to lighten the financial burdens placed on graduate students.

“Since 2016, we've engaged in a multi-year effort to substantially raise minimum TA stipends, moving from near the bottom of the Big Ten to the top half,” said McGlone in reference to university-wide hopes to support graduate student workers. “Graduate assistants were exempt from intermittent furloughs in fall 2020 and will also be exempt from the second round of intermittent employee furloughs planned for spring 2021.”

McGlone also highlighted that the graduate school Dean’s Student Board also provides a place for graduate students to express their thoughts and concerns about specific policies/issues, but Canales feels that “university administrators have not been willing to seriously engage with TAA or, to [her] knowledge, any other campus unions.” 

According to Canales, the university and university administrators have not yet responded to her email — sent last Monday — appealing for financial relief for student workers. 

Canales continues to highlight the notion that support for student workers is lacking, stating that many graduate student instructors faced serious worries about in-person classes this semester and have also found classes to be both difficult and stressful given that their students were often getting sick or put into quarantine, overwhelming instructors with emails. 

“I also think that the university has talked a lot [about] mental health during the pandemic, but has done nothing to address the social determinants of mental health,” said Canales. “That’s where financial relief would go a long way.”

With the Fall semester coming to a close, Canales and the TAA have concerns about the Spring semester and have concluded that many of the obstacles faced during the Fall 2020 semester will likely carry over. 

“Our concerns regarding the start of the fall semester were ignored even though our COVID-19 worries turned out to be right. As we were warning back in August, coronavirus cases on campus did have a big impact on the rest of the city,” said Canales. 

The TAA has been calling for a “Safe and Moral Restart” in place of the university’s plan for COVID-19 response, the “Smart Restart,” for months.

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