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UVa promised grad student workers 'a solution' on late payments. They're still waiting.

After University of Virginia graduate student workers protested a meeting of the school’s governing Board of Visitors last month over inaccurate and late payments, President Jim Ryan promised to meet with them. He told them, “We don’t leave the room until we have a solution.”

But that’s exactly what happened.

To be fair, UVa and the United Campus Workers of Virginia at UVa, the labor union representing the graduate student workers, didn’t walk into the meeting April 4 on the same page — quite literally.

Two days before the meeting, the union delegation sent UVa administrators a draft of the agenda, which allotted time for graduate students to chronicle the monthslong payment issues they’ve had as well a their diagnosis and remedy for the problem, concluding with a discussion and, they hoped, a decision.

A couple of hours before the meeting, the office of the provost shared a “slightly resequenced agenda,” as the provost’s chief of staff, Kenney Kipps, called it in an email to all attendees. The new agenda started with university staff providing an update from the Graduate Stipend Task Force and changes it made to stipend disbursement before yielding the floor to the graduate students.

“The revised agenda they sent mostly talked about the task force report,” Olivia Paschal, a graduate student worker who is a PhD student in the school’s history department, told The Daily Progress. “But that was after and in response to the massive issue of late graduate payments in 2022. That’s one particular instance, and it happened for a set of reasons, but there are a lot of other things happening for a myriad of other reasons. The task force is not addressing those.”

Union representatives responded with a request that more of the meeting be spent discussing the ongoing problems with payments. The graduate students, they said, were familiar with the status report from the task force; it was released last spring.

The back-and-forth over the agenda is emblematic of the ongoing conflict between UVa administrators and the graduate students employed on Grounds.

President Ryan as well as Provost Ian Baucom, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Brie Gertler, Associate Dean for Graduate Education China Scherz and Director of the Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Affairs Phil Trella were eager during the hourlong April 4 meeting to keep the conversation focused on the efforts of the task force, which was commissioned last February to investigate the university’s payment systems after the school failed to pay roughly 180 working graduate students in December 2022.

“We were glad to meet with administration and glad to talk to them about how the payment problems are an ongoing problem for many graduate workers,” said Paschal. “I feel like they heard parts of what we had to say, but they didn’t quite hear other parts.”

The five representatives of the United Campus Workers at the meeting came prepared with a 30-page packet filled with testimonies from graduate students and department staff members regarding late and inaccurate payments. The union has pegged the blame on chronic turnover and inadequate salaries for the department staff tasked with handling their finances. The dossier also included a compilation of proposed solutions — hire more staff with wage increases and institute fees when workers are paid late — as well as an open letter signed by more than 200 graduate and undergraduate students, professors and staff supporting the union’s solutions.

Despite promises from Ryan last month that “we don’t leave the room until we have a solution,” Paschal said she was disappointed by the president’s failure to commit to any of the solutions he heard from his graduate students. The administration did, however, agree to hold another discussion. It would not confirm whether that meeting would occur before the end of the spring semester in May.

“We were disappointed that they wouldn’t commit to instituting late fees or hiring more people,” said Paschal. “We hope to hold them to that in our next meeting.”

Paschal felt their demands were not out of the realm of possibility for a university with an endowment fund of $13.6 billion. The university also recently reported that its Honor the Future capital campaign reached its $5 billion goal well over a year ahead of schedule.

According to Paschal, university administrators told them that it could not implement a late fee policy because such an action would require a meeting of all the school’s deans in order to determine the fee. But Paschal and her fellow graduate students have been left wondering, “Does it really require that?”

Part of the challenge is a disconnect between the two sides’ perception of the problem.

The graduate student workers have records of many instances of late and inaccurate payments, which began well before the December 2022 affair and continue to this day. For example, 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.

The university’s messaging indicates that the payment errors are confined to the single event that took place in December 2022, when UVa failed to pay roughly 180 of its 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.

Baucom, the provost, voiced this sentiment during the university’s Board of Visitors meeting last month, during which 11 graduate students sat in on the meeting in the boardroom of the school’s iconic Rotunda holding signs that read, “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.”

Board members made it clear they were unaware graduate student workers were still not getting paid correctly or on time.

But 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,” graduate student Lucas Martínez told The Daily Progress shortly after that meeting.

University spokeswoman Bethanie Glover sent The Daily Progress a statement after the April 4 meeting which, much like Baucom’s previous remarks, focused on the school’s response to the December 2022 incident.

“These steps include hiring additional school-level staff; providing additional resources for administrative staff; improving our communications about payment schedules and funding processes; enhancing our oversight of payment processes; and improving the way we track payments,” said Glover in the statement. “We have also provided avenues for students to register any concerns about expected payments, allowing us to identify and correct errors quickly.”

The school insists that the errors are not related to a systemic problem, but rather due to a complex, nuanced process. For its roughly 2,000 funded graduated students, the school manages more than 10,000 different payment packages from 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.

“Given this complexity some errors are inevitable, but the steps outlined above have minimized the errors that occur and have helped us to detect and correct errors early in the process, before graduate students are affected,” reads Glover’s statement. “In the last year, the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences processed approximately 21,000 payments to 1,100 students with approximately 60 detected errors (an accuracy rate of 99.7%). We will continue to closely monitor and refine these processes and identify additional opportunities for improvement as needed.”

In the statement, Glover also mentions that “a handout of progress that has been made since December 2022 was distributed to the students attending the meeting,” though Paschal told The Daily Progress the union delegation did not receive any handouts at the meeting.

While UVa has taken some measures to address the issue by forming the task force and meeting with members of the union, Paschal said that the entire system still relies on graduate student workers flagging university officials when their paychecks are wrong or late.

“Every time I get a paycheck, I’m on edge. I’m wondering, ‘Will I need to email every administrator that I can to make sure I get paid on time, so I can pay my bills?’” said Paschal. “That’s not really a respectful relationship for us as workers of the university. That doesn’t make us feel valued as contributing the work that we do.”

The graduate student workers requested that by the next meeting — whenever that may be — the administration will have compiled data on the turnover rates among departments’ financial personnel and reconsider its decision to not implement late fees.

“We hope they’ll come to see what we know to be true,” said Paschal. “If you adequately staff departments, there will be less room for human error due to overwork or other mistakes that happen.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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