Bargaining Update #15: January 7th, 2016 Negotiation Session
Happy New Year, brothers and sisters! We are pleased to report that we began the new year with a productive bargaining session. Thursday’s agenda included pay periods, part-time parity, evaluations, disabilities, and leaves of absence. Let’s get down to business.
Thank you for everyone’s quick response to the survey we sent out regarding the two-week pay gap at the end of the spring semester. For some background, as it currently stands, we are paid for 36 out of 38 weeks, with two weeks of unpaid vacation over the winter break, divided into 18 pay periods over the course of the academic year. In practice, we receive a paycheck over the winter break, but we do not receive a “final” paycheck in the spring to account for the unpaid vacation time during winter break. Your survey responses indicate the absence of a final paycheck places an undue burden on many of us, who can go up to 4 weeks without pay between the end of the spring semester and the start of any summer income we plan to earn.
We heard you loud and clear and brought this up at our last bargaining session. We asked the administration and payroll to explore adding an additional (19th) pay period to the end of the year so the pay gap is lessened.
Payroll joined us once again on Thursday to share an anticlimactic update. According to payroll, an additional paycheck would have an undesirable consequence– a pay cut.
Long Explanation: IRS regulations require URI to deduct FICA taxes from your paycheck when classes are not in session (summer break). Since the 19th paycheck would overlap into a pay period when classes aren’t in session, we would have to pay 7.6% in taxes due to, say it with me now, FICA! This means an additional $63.38 would be taken out of the 19th paycheck. You work hard for your money and recognize that trading a pay cut to gain access to a 19th check is not a fair deal. As a result, both sides decided that the current setup should remain in place at this time. But wait, we’re not done yet. You still need to be able to manage that pay gap, so we explored ways for the administration to do a more effective job of notifying all Grad Assistants about the pay gap in the offer letter you receive at the start of your employment so you can plan accordingly. The administration has agreed to draft language for the offer letter that clearly states that you will not receive a paycheck for the last two weeks of your assistantship and explains why so no one is left wondering where their last paycheck went.
TL;DR 18 pay periods appear to be the best possible arrangement at this time, as adding a pay period would result in you losing money due to federal taxes. We expect the administration to draft clear language to be included in offer letters to articulate this up front for all Grad Assistants at the start of their contract.
Next we tried to rekindle the discussion about the financial inequality facing part-time Graduate Assistants. As it stands, half-time assistants have automatically been billed tuition for a full-time course load, but only receive a half-tuition waiver, regardless of how many credits they are registered for. In addition, they do not receive a 20% student fee waiver, nor do they receive a parking pass fee waiver. In short, part-time Graduate Assistants are left out of their fair share of benefits. We are waiting on the administration to schedule meetings in order to determine viable options for solving this inequity as it relates to the tuition billed. The administration assured us that they will do the necessary research on their end and that this will be at the top of the agenda at our next meeting.
As you may recall, we signed a tentative agreement in a previous session clarifying that GAs should receive a written evaluation regarding their job performance each year. We still need to agree as to whether a direct observation needs to be part of the evaluation process, as our contract currently states.
Many of you reported that annual job-related evaluations do not take place in your department, period, never mind you receiving a written synopsis of that evaluation that includes a direct observation. We want our contract to reflect the actual process that you can expect so you have appropriate feedback on your performance as a GA. We were told that the Council of Deans recognizes that there is an issue with the current job evaluation process- namely, that it isn’t regularly occurring for Grad Assistants. We were told that they are working on a “basic feedback system for Graduate Assistants.” We are eager to hear back about what develops in this regard over the semester.
We also discussed the fact that neither the Graduate Manual or our contract mention where a graduate assistant in need of accommodations for disabilities can turn for support as far as their work duties are concerned. Graduate Assistants with disabilities often need a different set of accommodations than students, and we want to be sure those accommodations are recognized and accounted for in our contract. The administration is looking into the process currently in place and will hopefully propose updated language for the contract at our next session.
Leave of Absence (LOA)
As it stands, the language in our contract regarding leaves is confusing. We have been working for several sessions to clear up this language. If you take a leave of absence from your academics, you are no longer considered a Graduate Assistant and, therefore, lose all of the benefits afforded to you under our contract. This has led to a number of disturbing situations where graduate assistants had been convinced by their department to take a leave of absence rather than utilize contractual leaves (ie parental, maternity or any other leave articulated in our contract) so a new GA could be hired to take their place.
The Graduate Manual has been updated to encourage anyone seeking a leave of absence of any kind to consult with the Assistant Dean of the Graduate School, who will work to ensure that all options are explored and to protect grad assistants from being coerced into options that may be beneficial to their department but harmful to them personally. We are also discussing the dubious phrasing in the maternity leave section that refers to pregnancy as though it is an emergency evacuation situation. Article 21.3 currently starts out saying “In the event of a pregnancy, a leave of absence shall be granted to graduate assistants with six (6) months or more of service.” Unless pregnancy involves preparing for a water landing in an airplane, we’d like to see this language updated to something less urgent and more inclusive for not only pregnancy but the adoption of a child or pregnancy-related complications. We are also looking into what we can do to articulate the intent of article 21.4 given that Grad Assistants do not currently qualify for family leave under the Rhode Island Parental and Family and Medical Leave Act.
FUN FACT #1: Have you noticed that the overall order of our contract appears to have very little rhyme or reason? Now we now know why! It turns out that our contract is “organized” based on the order in which each article was agreed to when the contract was originally negotiated back in 2002. . We will hopefully be able to reorganize the contract in a more logical way this time around.
Our next negotiating session is scheduled for Thursday, January 21, 2016, from 2-4pm. We’d love your feedback on any of the topics above.