March 17, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Cornell, Don’t Put Grad Workers in Danger Amidst Coronavirus

Print More

To the Editor:

We, members of the Cornell Graduate Student Union, commend Cornell Administration for taking preemptive effort to minimize risk due to COVID-19. Provided that the campus shutdown is executed in a way that accommodates for undergraduates who depend on their housing, employment or other necessities through the university, this is a step towards protecting some of the most vulnerable members of our community. That said, graduate workers are expected to remain on campus and do their jobs, and we continue to advocate for working conditions that are safe and fair.

Firstly, we urge the Graduate School to ensure that teaching assistants who are expected to convert courses to a virtual format on short notice are given the proper IT resources and training to do so effectively, and the students taking those courses are insured to have sufficient access to computers and internet. Failure to do so would shortchange the students who have dedicated energy and money to take these courses and may unfairly impact the TA’s evaluations.

Additionally, CGSU has received multiple disconcerting reports from grads (who wish to remain anonymous) of some academic advisors, primarily those in experimental laboratories, leveraging this crisis to exploit graduate workers. Afraid that the campus may completely shut down if the virus worsens, grads have been urged to work long hours such that ‘progress will not be lost’ if the lab must close, and risk their relationship with their supervisor (and possibly their job, the security of which overwhelmingly rests in the hands of the supervisor) if they refuse. The long taxing hours and lack of sleep are not only unfair working conditions, but may increase vulnerability to illnesses like COVID-19, undermining the very point of a potential shutdown. Some have been told that if they become quarantined, the two weeks spent out of the lab will come out of their own paychecks. Whether this is even something within an advisor’s power is beside the question — and grads should never be forced into no-win situations where they must choose between risking their good professional standing or their health and financial stability. Again, this isn’t conjecture — it is already happening, and it must come to an end.

This is a failure of priority — the health and safety of workers should come before the lab’s output, which itself is impacted negatively if the grads performing it are tired and stressed. It can be seen as another instance of how the conditions of our employment have been designed for an ‘ideal, average’ graduate student: A young, healthy, financially stable person with no dependents, is not at risk of a “serious case” of COVID-19 and who’s willing and able to put the quantity of work they produce before everything else. This is an inept description of the graduate student body, and it erases the myriad of ways in which both the virus and the ways our manager’s respond to this virus can seriously impact our lives. We urge the graduate school to provide a promise of job and stipend security, even if a grad worker is unable to complete research tasks due to infection or quarantine.

As a union, we are here for all grads, to support you and advocate for your needs. If professional fallout from COVID-19 is unfairly affecting you or someone you know, please reach out to us. To be clear, we believe this behavior is far from the norm – many supervisors are truly trying to accommodate for their student’s health. If you are one of these supervisors and know a colleague who is exploiting their students, we urge you to stop them immediately. And if you are worrying over the productivity of your lab this spring semester, consider the health and wellbeing of your workers first, and, instead, help us face this crisis together with solidarity and mutual support.

Ethan Ritz, grad

Jacy Tacket, grad

Nathan Sitaraman, grad

David Blatter, grad

Cornell Graduate Students United 

Organising Committee Members