In March hundreds of Kansas University graduate students signed petitions asking administrators not to reduce their work hours at campus jobs, an option under consideration as the university determines how to comply with healthcare reform.
The KU Provost’s office recently responded to graduate students and tried to ease their worries. Diane Goddard, the KU vice provost for administration and finance, issued a statement to graduate student assistants and employees welcoming their input, but many students are still worried about their future income.
At issue is the number of hours that graduate students can work on campus. Currently most can work up to 30 hours a week at campus jobs, including assistantships, most of which are a 20-hour-per-week commitment.
For some of those who work as graduate teaching or research assistants, the average pay of those jobs, between $15,000 and $16,000 for a nine-month appointment, is not enough to make ends meet. To supplement their income, many graduate students work second jobs at university services such as campus libraries and the KU Writing Center.
But as the university looks at how to comply with the Affordable Care Act, those second jobs could be in jeopardy. Graduate students became alarmed after an email began circulating which contained language that appeared to be a proposed policy to limit graduate work hours to 20 per week.
KU has said that the email did not amount to a new policy or policy proposal, but the idea is being considered as one way to adapt to the employer mandate to provide health insurance for employees working 30 hours a week or more.
In her email to graduate student employees, Goddard thanked them for signing the petitions and said she was working with human resources to create “opportunities for graduate student employee input on this topic,” such as forums and focus groups. Goddard was unavailable for an interview for this story.
She also pointed out that graduate students, regardless of the outcome, will still be offered health insurance. Currently graduate students are offered a health plan with a 75 percent university contribution. The plan satisfies the individual requirement to carry insurance under the healthcare reform law, but not the requirement for employers to provide group coverage to their full-time employees, said Gavin Young, a KU spokesman.
Several factors complicate the issue, all of which are still being reviewed by the university. Young said KU still hasn’t determined how to apply the 30-hour-a-week definition of full-time work in the law to graduate student workers, nor has it calculated how many graduate students currently would be eligible for insurance under the law or how much providing insurance for them through the state employee plan would cost.
‘In limbo mode’
Pantaleon Florez III, a master’s student in the School of Education and the graduate affairs director for KU’s Student Senate, had been active in organizing the petition signing and more recently has been talking with the provost’s office about the issue on behalf of graduate students.
“I’ve been really pleased with the response from administration,” he said. Others he talked to have also said they were encouraged by Goddard’s statement, though some have said it sounded like “lip service.” For now, most students are waiting to see how the process goes forward and how they will be included in that process.
“We’re just kind of still in that waiting limbo mode,” Florez said.
Angela Murphy, a Ph.D. student in the English department, said of Goddard’s statement, “I do think that it addresses a lot of the concerns drawn up in the petition. I would be very interested to see when the conversation starts, because it hasn’t yet.”
Murphy hopes she and others like her can hold on to their second jobs, which not only subsidize their income but also give them an opportunity to apply skills they’ve picked up as graduate students and throw their weight behind university services, she said.
But many are pessimistic, even after the university’s response. “When you sit around the table at the end day and you say, ‘Did you see the email?’, the general consensus is: ‘I’m expecting the worst’,” Murphy said.