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Grad Union Expresses Concerns with Workload, Health Care, and Research During Pandemic

Union members march during a May 2019 rally.
Union members march during a May 2019 rally. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Davit Antonyan and Callia A. Chuang, Crimson Staff Writers

Student workers said they are concerned about workload protections, health care, and research opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic, given the absence of a contract between Harvard and its graduate student union.

Since negotiations first began, Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers and the University have remained in disagreement over key provisions regarding compensation, health care, and discrimination and harassment procedures. Bargaining committee member Cory W. McCartan said the pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for a contract to guarantee these protections to student workers.

“If Harvard had finished up the contract and reached agreement with us like it said it would back in January, our members would have a lot more protections right now and would be in a lot better shape to weather this crisis,” McCartan said.

After Harvard switched to remote instruction, HGSU-UAW continued to organize its members via email and engaged in one remote bargaining session with the University. The union later alleged the University asked to suspend contract negotiations for three to four weeks in order to reevaluate its finances — a claim which Harvard denied.

“The fact that they’ve stalled and delayed negotiations this whole spring has made this a lot harder for our members,” McCartan added.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain wrote in an email that Harvard continues to negotiate with the union, and the two parties are scheduled to meet for a remote bargaining session with a federal mediator May 1 — two years to the day Harvard announced it would bargain with HGSU-UAW.

“Throughout this public health crisis, the University has continued to take steps with regards to its policies and resources to help our students address challenges they are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Swain wrote.

McCartan said union members were concerned about increased workload due to the new demands of online instruction. While Harvard and HGSU-UAW reached a tentative workload agreement earlier this month — setting a weekly hour limit and guaranteeing compensation for all hours worked — student workers do not currently have access to these protections because the two parties have not yet reached their first contract.

Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences announced last month it would compensate student workers for the spring 2020 semester if the limitations of remote instruction prevented them from fulfilling their employment obligations.

McCartan also said student workers are worried about access to health coverage given the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic, particularly those who do not have University-provided health insurance.

“As this pandemic turns the whole university upside down, it leaves a lot of our workers wondering if they catch this virus, what's going to happen to them if they don't have health care, and why can’t a university with a $41 billion endowment give them basic health care,” McCartan said.

In response to the health emergency, Harvard has made adjustments to the Student Health Insurance Plan, waiving visit limits for specialist consultations and mental health through the end of July.

Still, HGSU-UAW member Jordan Howell said he believes that these provisions should have been “in place before” and not just “as an emergency measure.”

Graduate students also said the transition to online learning has disrupted their academic studies and research projects. The union recently asked Harvard to provide graduate students with a “COVID-19 bridge year” — during which students would receive full funding and health care from the University — to help them resume their research.

“It makes a lot of sense to have some kind of bridge funding year that takes away some of those concerns and allows students to continue working on their research and not be disrupted by the situation in a debilitating way,” Howell said.

—Staff writer Davit Antonyan can be reached at davit.antonyan@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Callia A. Chuang can be reached at callia.chuang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @calliaachuang.

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