Graduate Students Demand COVID-19 Hardship Relief

South Building

The letter to University officlals, signed by mostly graduate students, demanded higher pay and emergency stipends and guaranteed employment and health insurance. (File photo)

The plight of UNC graduate students facing uncertain futures due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on ability to work and on the economy has spilled out in a demands-filled letter to University officials.

“Graduate workers are economically precarious and vulnerable to socio-economic disasters like this pandemic because our employer, UNC-Chapel Hill, does not meet our current material needs; the graduate worker service stipend is nowhere near the cost of living in Chapel Hill or anywhere UNC-Chapel Hill graduate workers conduct research and teach,” the letter said.

“The current minimum graduate worker service stipend of $15,700 per academic year does not allow students to save cash reserves for emergencies, and many graduate workers have lost second and third jobs they rely on to make ends meet. Additionally, while inflation and the standard of living have steadily increased over the past several years, the UNC-Chapel Hill graduate worker [teaching assistant] stipend has not been adjusted to meet the current estimated living wage residents of Orange County need, roughly $26,790 per year. UNC’s current minimum TA stipend is more than $11,000 below a living wage.”

The letter, with more than 370 signatures by Thursday — mostly graduate students — demanded higher pay and emergency stipends and guaranteed employment and health insurance. It called for University administrators to take a 10 percent pay cut and that the savings go into relief funds for all students. It also demanded UNC pay international students the equivalent of federal stimulus funds, for which they are not eligible, and ensure that international and undocumented students retain their visas and immigration status.

The letter was addressed to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Provost Robert Blouin, Graduate School Dean Suzanne Barbour, the Board of Trustees and unidentified UNC administrative officials.

UNC had no immediately response to the letter, and Guskiewicz did not address it in his remarks to the trustees Tuesday.

The students referred to themselves as “graduate workers,” explaining, “This emergency and the resulting requirements placed on graduate workers to return to campus, continue teaching, research, and support work while undergraduate students were sent home demonstrates that graduate workers are workers, and that our labor is essential to the functioning of the University. We are proud of the work we do teaching, researching, and supporting students and faculty, and we demand that we be fairly and adequately compensated for our labor.”

In a new petition published June 12, graduate students said, “We will not commit to a plan or an ‘experiment’ that puts the lowest-paid workers and marginalized students on our campus at the most risk.”

Initially signed by 435 people, it demanded that UNC not reopen in-person in the fall, not lay off or furlough any staff, continue to pay graduate students and provide their health insurance and compensate all on-site workers with hazard pay.



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