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UVa president agrees to meet with grad students who have protested late payments for more than a year

Last month, Forbes magazine named the University of Virginia one of the best large employers in the country, ranking 73rd among 600 U.S. employers with more than 5,000 employees, the highest of any college in Virginia.

But for many, the news that UVa is one of the best places to work in the commonwealth, or the country for that matter, raised the question: For whom?

Dozens of graduate student workers at UVa say they are not receiving their stipend payments on time. For some it has taken weeks or months, for others years.

There is hope though.

As the school’s governing Board of Visitors concluded its regular meeting earlier this month, UVa President Jim Ryan agreed to meet with graduate workers to resolve what the students have referred to as a “systemic issue” of late and inaccurate payments. Ryan as well as several others on the board spoke with 11 graduate students who sat in on the meeting in the boardroom of the school’s iconic Rotunda. Those students held signs reading, “The university works because we do,” “UVa paid me late, but my bills can’t wait” and “I can’t work if I can’t eat.”

One of those sign-holders was Ida Hoequist, a former graduate student in the school’s anthropology department who said they were excited to hear Ryan tell the group, “We don’t leave the room until we have a solution.”

“When this has been your normal for so long, it is such a good feeling to have hope that we will get paid on time,” Hoequist told The Daily Progress. “I’m excited, and I feel hopeful about this for the first time since 2015. I can’t tell you how amazing the feeling is that maybe this is over.”

At that meeting on March 1, limited space in the boardroom meant that only 11 graduate workers with the United Campus Workers of Virginia at UVa union could sit in on the action. But another 20 or so workers were at the Rotunda that day to make their presence known and their thoughts heard, according to graduate student Lucas Martínez.

“We had a feeling there was a good chance the visitors weren’t aware of the issue, so we wanted to let them know as people who are a part of the UVa community,” Martínez told The Daily Progress. “They were sympathetic and confused.”

There were board members at the meeting who appeared genuinely ignorant of the matter. That ignorance was not alleviated by UVa Provost Ian Baucom’s assertion at the meeting that the matter being protested had already been resolved.

When a board member asked why signs were being wielded in a corner of the room, Baucom responded, “They are here because of a problem two Decembers ago, and there has only been one other instance since.”

“That’s just factually incorrect,” said Martínez.

In December 2022, UVa failed to pay roughly 180 out of 2,000 working graduate students. University employees had to return to Grounds over the winter break that year to fix the problem, while many graduate students fell behind on bills and faced late fines from landlords. UVa said it reached out to these students to assist them with any financial burden caused by the delay.

For more than a year, a union-led “Cut The Checks” campaign has petitioned the university to address inaccurate grant and wage disbursements in addition to delayed payments. The union has held town halls, rallies and sent several delegations to speak with university administrators.

One of these meetings with Baucom led to the Graduate Stipend Task Force that was commissioned in February 2023. Throughout the spring, the task force examined the university’s payment systems, and in May, it released its final report. The report identified miscommunication on required deadlines for processing as well as administrative delays as the primary reasons for the payment debacle. It outlined several immediate and long-term recommendations, which included establishing appropriate deadlines, developing a centralized payment system, automating audit reports and conducting further studies on staffing levels and turnover.

However, graduate worker Olivia Paschal said that student workers don’t need another study to tell them where the problems lie.

“For us, the task force recommendations were disappointing in that most of the items we understand are the main problems behind the continued payment issues they’ve identified as something that needs further study,” Paschal told The Daily Progress. “But it doesn’t, it’s very clear the issue is, to us, staff turnover because they’re doing too much work for low pay.”

Moreover, the task force doesn’t appear to have communicated its findings very well, said Martínez, or else the Board of Visitors members would not have had to ask so many questions at their last meeting.

“It was clear that the task force hadn’t informed administration or the visitors very well,” Martínez said.

While the task force’s report lists recommendations that could take more than a year to complete, graduate student workers believe some more immediate solutions could materialize out of their planned meeting with Ryan.

“I definitely think it’s possible to come to a solution and be the beginning of UVa adjusting to a better way of doing things,” said Martínez. “President Ryan wants to take UVa to a place where it’s the top university, but we all have to go along with that. Everyone here needs to feel like they are a part of that journey.”

Paschal was one of the many students whose payments were botched in December 2022. This past December, a similar situation occurred again. Paschal said she was expecting to receive a $6,120 stipend in advance of the spring semester this December. Instead, she received a check of $2,448.

Sending frantic emails to university staff to resolve payment errors has become routine for Paschal who, along with others in her PhD fellowship in fall 2023, received incorrect stipend payments in August. When the students notified the school, they were instead all charged the amount they were owed, placing holds on their student accounts.

Though Paschal’s debt was remedied in a matter of weeks, others have not been so fortunate. Graduate worker Ethan Evans said it took Student Financial Services two years to give them the full amount owed from an AmeriCorps education stipend.

Hoequist said that out of a group of 10 graduate students they work with, they’ve heard of eight inaccurate payments since August.

“It’s insane that while you’re supposed to be doing highly technical work, which already takes up a lot of overtime and worrying about paying bills on top of that, you have to watch like a hawk to even make sure you’re getting payments,” Hoequist said.

Graduate student workers aren’t convinced the school would have ever caught the errors on its own.

“If the graduate workers had not noticed we weren’t paid correctly, who knows?” Paschal said.

Despite the frequency and volume of these incidents, university officials insist the errors are not related to a systemic problem, but rather due to a complex, nuanced process.

Graduate students can receive a variety of different forms of income from the university: grants, teaching assistant wages, living stipends and fellowships. Depending on the type of payment, it could be processed through one of the many financial systems the university has in place — WorkDay, Student Information System, Student Aid Funding Module and Payroll Services — that are all handled by different departments across the schools.

“Each case, because of the intricacies, could be different,” Phil Trella, director of the Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Affairs at UVa, told The Daily Progress. “We can only address issues that we know about, and because of these complexities, we really need to know the specifics. This is why we’ve created a form that’s been sent around to all the graduate students in Arts & Sciences multiple times. If there’s a challenge, we want to address that as soon as possible.”

The form was created in conjunction with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Student Council in the fall. Trella said the university has received 12 submissions from students seeking financial assistance and reporting current or past incorrect payments.

That figure does not accurately reflect the number of payment issues that have occurred this year, as students are more likely to reach out to a staff member they are familiar with in their own department, said Hoequist. Graduate students in the College of Arts & Sciences have been sent the form on three separate occasions, though the first two were “buried” in a graduate student newsletter, said Paschal.

A date has not been set for Ryan’s planned meeting with graduate student workers. When The Daily Progress reached out for more details, university administrators did not immediately respond.

The United Campus Workers of Virginia at UVa union, though, said it has been in contact with the president’s office.

“This university can’t be great and good if we don’t pay workers on time,” said Martínez. “Without our graduate workers, this university doesn’t run in the same way. Let’s solve this problem together.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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