Georgetown University’s graduate student union is pressuring administrators to negotiate aspects of the school’s fall reopening plan after raising concerns about graduate workers’ safety should they return to campus in the fall.
The Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees submitted two demands to bargain with university administrators — one July 14, and another July 21. GAGE argues that the university’s current reopening plan could force graduate workers to work in person despite concerns about contracting COVID-19.
The union and the Graduate Student Government conducted a COVID Concerns Survey from June 3 to 15 to gather feedback from masters and doctoral students about the fall reopening plan. Based on the results of the survey, GAGE concluded that no graduate teaching assistant, research assistant or instructor of record should be compelled to work on campus this fall and that no worker should face “adverse consequences” for not feeling comfortable working on campus.
GAGE also demands that the university offer unlimited paid sick leave to graduate workers, supply every graduate student worker with the necessary personal protective equipment, and provide additional financial support to doctoral students.
For graduate student workers who are reluctant to work on campus due to health concerns, the university’s current policy may force them to choose between their health and their financial stability, according to Jewel Tomasula (GRD ’22), the president of GAGE.
“There are many complex and intersecting reasons why a graduate student assistant may not want to take the risk by working on campus,” Tomasula wrote in an email to The Hoya. “If the department indicated the grad student worker’s research needed to be done on campus, the grad student worker would be in the situation where they have to take the unpaid personal leave, losing their stipend and healthcare.”
The university has told student leaders that it will make “reasonable efforts” to reassign teaching assistants to fully online or hybrid courses if they have reservations about teaching in person, according to a summary of the university’s current policy shared with The Hoya by Henry Watson (GRD ’23), the president of GradGov and a doctoral candidate in government. The policy warns teachers against pressuring graduate student workers to teach in person if they express discomfort.
The policy also stipulates that any teaching assistants who cannot be reassigned to an online class — an outcome the university says is unlikely — may have to take up a position as a research assistant, according to Watson. Should no suitable research positions be available, a graduate worker may have to choose between teaching in an undesirable environment or taking an unpaid leave of absence, Watson added.
“In the event that there is no suitable online teaching assignment available, and the student cannot be reassigned to a research assistant position, [they] would be forced to choose between teaching in conditions they believe to be unsafe and taking an unpaid leave of absence,” Watson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It would be an extremely harmful position to put even a single student into, and I feel that the university should make every effort to ensure that no student is forced to choose between their health and their funding.”
GAGE has pushed to bring the university to the negotiating table. Graduate students have shared their stories and concerns on social media. The union has created and circulated a petition addressed to university President John J. DeGioia (CAS ’79, GRD ’95) calling for the university to enter into bargaining with GAGE regarding fall reopening plans.
The university has resisted bargaining efforts, according to union leadership. Members of GAGE say the university is obligated to negotiate on these matters as per their union contract. The contract stipulates that GAGE reserves the right to bargain on “mandatory subjects of bargaining,” which includes leave policies.
The university says it has worked to accommodate the needs of the school’s graduate workers. University administrators have also been holding discussions with GAGE members about the school’s reopening plans, according to a university spokesperson.
“The University has been working thoughtfully on developing a policy for providing graduate students flexibility in fulfilling their service assignments for Fall 2020 in light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Georgetown University shares GAGE’s belief in the important role that graduate student assistants play and shares its commitment to giving them a strong voice as members of our community.”
Jeremy Canfield (COL ’19), a second-year doctoral student in physics who works on GAGE’s Organizing Committee, believes that the university must live up to its contractual obligations by coming to the bargaining table.
“We at GAGE intend to adhere to the contract we worked so hard for, and we will hold the administration to it as well,” Canfield wrote in an email to The Hoya. “They must bargain with us over Fall reopening plans for graduate workers.”
Update (7/28/20): On July 28, the university agreed to bargain with GAGE about fall reopening plans, according to a press release from the union. Administrators and union members will begin negotiations on July 29.