Discussions on limiting KU grad student work hours prompts alarm

Kansas University graduate students are sounding alarms over a proposal within the university that could cut back how many hours they can work on campus.

The university has said the possibility has been brought up as part of ongoing, and still early, discussions within university administration about how to adapt to health care reform.

The students are worried specifically about an email that surfaced with what appears to be a proposed policy to limit the total number of hours students can work on campus to 20 hours per week, down from the current cutoff for many students of 30.

For some, that would represent a sizable hit to their incomes, already low for many graduate teaching and research assistants. To convince administration to keep the current rules intact, some graduate students have drawn up petitions and started a campus-wide campaign.

Adapting to health care reform

KU Provost Jeffrey Vitter declined an interview request on the subject. KU spokesman Gavin Young said KU administration and human resources have been discussing how KU will respond to the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate to provide health insurance for all employees working 30 hours a week or more.

Young had few specific details to provide. He said the university is still determining how the 30-hour-a-week definition of full-time employment in the health care law will apply to graduate assistants, and what the cost of insuring graduate student workers would be. KU is also waiting on guidance from the state insurance program.

“I think the whole conversation is very premature,” Young said.

KU is not alone among universities trying to figure out how to adapt to health care reform. According to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, the federal government has not specifically addressed how graduate teaching and research assistants fit into the law.

The University of Alabama has already moved to limit graduate assistant hours to 20 per week to avoid paying for insurance under the health care law — a fact that has fueled concern at KU.

‘We really firmly oppose this policy’

In 2013, KU employed about 1,100 teaching assistants and 640 research assistants, according to the KU public affairs office.

For students with those assistantships, most work 20 hours per week under the terms of the appointment. At an average pay of between $15,000 and $16,000 for a nine-month appointment, the assistantships don’t provide enough income for many students.

Meredith Wiggins, a graduate student in English, works as a teaching assistant in her department and puts in extra hours at the journalism school’s Bremner Editing Center.

“A number of us have second jobs on campus that go beyond” the assistantship, Wiggins said. “A lot of us rely on that money to make ends meet.”

Wiggins has helped draft the student petition to block any added limit of hours.

“We really firmly oppose this policy,” she said.

English doctoral student Jennifer Colatosti is in a similar position to Wiggins. She is a teaching assistant and also works as a consultant at the KU Writing Center. Under a 20-hour limit, she would have to quit her job at the Writing Center, which would be “effectively cutting out $400 of my monthly budget,” she said. “And that’s significant.”

Other graduate students cobble together hourly jobs, which means they don’t have the benefit of a tuition waiver that comes with an assistantship. They too might have to quit their second jobs if new limits were in place.

In that boat is Pantaleon Florez III, who has also been active in organizing the petition drive. Florez, a master’s student in the School of Education, works as the graduate affairs director for the Student Senate and also tutors through KU Athletics for an extra 10 hours a week.

Florez said last year he beat the poverty line by about $580.

“Taking the 10-hour position away from me would put me literally below the poverty line,” he said.