Graduate assistants feel ‘blindsided’ over change in pay

By Kendall Polidori, News Editor

Courtesy Jeffrey Barbieri and Rebecca Khera
Jeffrey Barbieri, nonfiction graduate assistant and graduate student instructor, and Rebecca Khera, English and Creative Writing Department graduate assistant and graduate student instructor, share concerns over the program’s pay change.

Five days prior to the start of the Fall 2019 semester, graduate assistants received an unexpected notice of a change in their pay.

At a department meeting held in Spring 2019, graduate assistants were told by Interim Dean of Graduate Studies Jeff Schiff and English and Creative Writing Department Chair Pegeen Reichert Powell, the outgoing interim dean, they would be making above Chicago minimum wage, according to Rebecca Khera, an English and Creative Writing Department graduate assistant and graduate student instructor. The Chicago minimum wage is $13 an hour as of July 1, 2019.

This made graduate assistants believe they would  see an increase in pay this academic year.

Instead, graduate assistants received an Aug. 29 email from Assistant Dean of Graduate Studies Kara Ratcliffe, stating this year the college would make the switch to a yearly stipend of $6,000 for graduate assistants. The switch would result in graduate assistants earning roughly $1,200 less before taxes than when they earned a $12 hourly wage for 20 hours of work per week—or roughly $7,200 a year, during the 2018–2019 academic year. Those graduate assistants will be working 12 hours per week this year instead of 20.

With the increase to the $13 an hour minimum wage, graduate assistants who worked 20 hours per week would now be making roughly $7,800 per academic year before taxes.

Jeffrey Barbieri, a nonfiction graduate assistant and graduate student instructor, said at least three returning graduate assistants complained to Jenny Boully, an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department and graduate studies program director. Boully then contacted Ratcliffe about the complaints, Barbieri said.

Returning third-year graduate assistants were then informed by Ratcliffe on the first day of the Fall 2019 semester that they would continue working 20 hours a week for a stipend of $4,000 a semester, or $8,000 for the academic year, while first-year and second-year graduate assistants will earn a $3,000 stipend each semester for 12 hours of work per week, according to Barbieri.

“Graduate students are in a very precarious situation, and it is ridiculous that [the college] feels the need to try and squeeze us like this, in terms of cutting off $600 a semester,” Barbieri said. “What are [they] really accomplishing by doing that?”

The college transitioned to a stipend to replace the “uncertainty of uneven bi-weekly payments” with predictable and expected payments, which allows students to better plan and manage their finances, Ratcliffe said.

With the stipend in place “there will be a cap on hours so that [graduate assistants’] time will be respected,” Schiff said. “Students will be better able to plan their finances.”

Khera said she believes the college waited to release the information until five days before the semester began so it would not have to raise their pay in accordance with Chicago minimum wage laws.

Technically, the decrease in pay for some graduate assistants is related directly to the reduced number of hours they are now working each week, making their paychecks smaller than they were expecting.

“We are already living on so little,” Khera said. “Now, they are trying to rob us of the scraps they give us in the first place.”

At one point, Khera was simultaneously working four jobs just to make ends meet.

“While $600 [less a semester] may not seem like a lot, it can mean the difference between having groceries, paying utilities or going to the doctor for a lot of students,” Khera said.

Lambrini Lukidis, assistant vice president of Strategic Communications and External Relations, said if the graduate assistants working 12 hours a week were paid Chicago minimum wage, they would make $4,680 a year before taxes. With the change, however, those graduate assistants will earn $6,000, with the third-year graduate assistants earning $8,000 a year, which is also above the new minimum wage.

Jon Bomar, director of employment concerns for the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students—a graduate student-led association comprised of students across the nation that advocates for graduate student rights—said for a 20–25 hour per week assistantship, $4,000 a semester, or $8,000 per year, is “unusually low,” particularly for students who live in Chicago.

Bomar said announcing a pay change five days prior to the start of the semester is “shameful” and “borderline abusive.”

On average, Bomar said a stipend for a 20-25 hour a week graduate assistantship ranges from $18,000-$30,000 per year.

According to Schiff, that is not the case. He said those averages reflect the pay of teaching assistants and would relate to the college’s graduate student instructors, not graduate assistants.

Graduate student instructors teach courses by themselves and make a stipend of $4,000 a semester—$8,000 a year—according to Khera.

Khera and Barbieri are both graduate assistants and graduate student instructors, and make a $16,000 yearly stipend for both positions, they said.

At Columbia, graduate student instructors are “instructors of record,” according to Lukidis. Students who hold assistantships work directly with a faculty or staff member as a teaching assistant, research assistant or marketing and events assistant, Lukidis said.

“Graduate students operate on already tight budgets, which has been shown to contribute to the vast mental health crisis among graduate students,” Bomar said.

According to Schiff, a limited number of students agreed in writing to work additional hours for an increased stipend, with terms considered on a case-by-case basis.

“As with all organizations, we revisit policies on a regular basis,” Schiff said.

According to Barbieri, returning third-year graduate assistants signed a contract two years ago after accepting their positions. In the contract, they agreed to work 20 hours a week for three years. All who signed the contract will be able to continue working 20 hours a week.

After this academic year, graduate assistants will follow the new pay switch of 12 hours a week with a $6,000 yearly stipend, Barbieri said.

“They have known [about this change] for a while because this was in the works last year, yet the graduate students have been blindsided yet again,” Khera said. “This is their attempt to trap students into these jobs.”

Barbieri said Columbia continues to hire well-paid administrators but does not pay graduate students a living wage. A graduate degree is something people should not have to suffer through in order to accomplish, he said.

Although Barbieri, along with other graduate students, has issues with the structure of the college and the new stipend system, he said the work he does at the college is valuable.

“The positions themselves are nice … we are doing useful work,” Barbieri said. “But … getting squeezed is a slap in the face.”