October 13, 2015

GUEST ROOM | We Don’t Work for Poverty Wages & We Don’t Work for Free

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In the summer 2015, graduate research assistants in my department, Development Sociology, received only $225 per week.  If paid out over the entire year, after taxes, this amount would total just $90 above the federal poverty line of $11,670. Graduate students in other departments share similar experiences.  In another department, which chose to remain anonymous, skilled and productive graduate research assistants have been asked to work for less and less each year: since 2013, summer T.A. and R.A. wages in that department have declined by more than $500 each year. If this trend continues, conservative estimates project their summer T.A.  and R.A. salaries will drop to $0 within four years.

This dilemma is both embarrassing and unacceptable. We don’t work for poverty wages and we don’t work for free. Graduate research assistants are highly skilled professionals. A substantial proportion of us already have completed a master’s degree and are continuing work toward a doctorate (making us more educated than most of the administrators). In the summer, exactly like during the academic year, graduate research assistants actively assist faculty in the research process and make substantive decisions related to research methods and publication. Graduate students routinely present at professional conferences, and the University benefits from the exposure. In practice, we also play a central role in training and mentoring undergraduate researchers. We clearly perform highly skilled labor, and ought to be compensated accordingly.

During the academic year, the Graduate School demonstrates a commitment to compensating its graduate students for our work by maintaining a University-wide minimum base salary level for all graduate research and teaching assistants, adjusted annually for inflation.  However, no such policy exists covering the summer months. As a consequence, large inequalities exist in levels of summer T.A.  and R.A. support between departments and strong incentives exist for individual departments to underpay their graduate students during the summer.  The situation, moreover, seems to be getting worse: The Graduate School actually cut the funding it did provide to my department (DSOC), making it uncertain whether we will get paid at all in the summer of 2016.  Several other departments have reported similar cuts.

The Graduate School maintains that it is the responsibility of individual departments or faculty advisers to find funding for graduate students during the summer. However, individual departments have very little incentive to raise summer T.A. and R.A. pay levels. And why would they? What organization in today’s economy pays its workers more just because it wants to? Graduate T.A.’s and R.A.’s do not currently have the type of representation or collective bargaining power that might give us meaningful leverage to negotiate fair summer compensation packages. And as a consequence, we find ourselves in the ridiculous scenario described here: We are highly skilled workers with poverty wages and undervalued work.

The Grad School is at fault for not implementing a simple policy that would quickly level the playing field: The Grad School should implement, immediately, a University-wide minimum summer T.A. and R.A. pay rate of $2,739 per month, adjusted annually for inflation. This is exactly the same pay rate as mandated during the academic year. This is the fair solution — there is no justifiable reason for graduate T.A.’s and R.A.’s to be paid less in the summer for the same work we perform during the academic year. This policy would create the necessary incentives to push individual departments to either seek more grant funding or otherwise raise the money for fair wages. In addition, it would protect graduate T.A. and R.A.’s from questionable compensation policies such as those mentioned in this article.

The Cornell Graduate School benefits from this policy also.  In the recently released “Doctoral Student Experience Survey,” Cornell claims with well-deserved pride that our overall time-to-degree duration is shorter than the national average across all PhD programs in the Humanities (6.8 years vs. 9.2 years), Life Sciences (5.6 years vs. 6.9 years), Physical Sciences (5.6 years vs. 6.5 years) and Social Sciences (6.0 years vs. 7.7 years). Summer funding is  crucial to maintaining this strength because our fiscal peace-of-mind is a critical component of our success. Current cuts and inequalities within the program make it likely that Cornell will lose ground on this important indicator. This scenario does not benefit anyone.

I hope this discussion continues in the GPSA and elsewhere, with graduate T.A.’s and R.A.’s included. We’re the ones who do the work, and we should be fairly compensated. The most appropriate course of action would be for the Graduate School to establish a minimum summer T.A. and R.A. pay rate of $2,739 per month, identical to the policy during the academic year. There’s no reason not to. We’re not going to work for free.

Paul Berry is a graduate student at Cornell. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.