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Graduate students face insurance, pay, COVID-19 difficulties as semester begins

The first weeks of a semester as a graduate assistant are stressful enough. It’s made much worse when you aren’t receiving healthcare, pay or safety.

A number of graduate assistants and graduate fellows at Michigan State University are experiencing just this at the start of the 2021 fall semester.

Graduate assistant Toby Santamaria’s contract-guaranteed health insurance was supposed to renew on Aug. 16. According to them, they received an email confirming their renewal and prompting them to enroll dependents.

Santamaria’s insurance had not renewed. However, they did not find out until weeks later, when their healthcare provider called to inform them that they had no insurance to cover their recent appointments.

“I’m getting bills mailed to me by all the doctors I had seen because nobody warned me I had no insurance,” Santamaria said.

They weren’t the only one. A minimum of 20 graduate assistants, but likely many more, had not been enrolled in healthcare, according to a Graduate Employees Union survey.

According to Santamaria, MSU Human Resources initially blamed the company that was responsible for communicating between the university and the health insurance company. When they called again, they instead blamed the newly integrated Student Information System, or SIS.

While Santamaria’s health insurance was restored on Sep. 17, they claim that they are still struggling to fix the $700 in medical bills from their month of being uninsured.

Graduate assistants are not the only ones facing serious financial problems. A university enrichment fellow, who wished to stay anonymous, said that they did not receive their second stipend or healthcare reimbursement — two sums of money that they need to pay their bills.

Unlike salaried graduate assistants, graduate students under fellowship have to pay out of pocket and upfront for their health insurance, which MSU reimburses when the semester begins. The anonymous fellow had spent nearly all of their savings to pay for the insurance. This left them with no cushion to pay for rent and other bills when the stipend and reimbursement weren’t deposited on time.

Additionally, the fellow’s tuition waiver had not been processed, and an awarded scholarship had disappeared from their student account.

What followed was hours spent on the phone and in offices, trying to figure out where their money was. Like Santamaria, the fellow was told that the new system was to blame.

“I just got the same line that was like ‘Everybody’s having system issues, everybody’s having problems, you just have to be patient’,” the fellow said.

Associate Provost for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Thomas Jeitschko addressed the health insurance and payment issues in a Sep. 18. statement.

“We are deeply sorry for the challenges our graduate students and fellows have faced with respect to health coverage and assistantship and stipend payments, which have naturally left some frustrated and concerned,” Jeitschko said in an email.

Like Santamaria and the fellow had been told, Jeitschko blamed the integration of the new SIS and financial aid system as the primary culprit behind the problems. He claimed that the health insurance issue had been resolved and that the fellowship disbursement issues were nearly fixed as well.

“These new systems have some shortcomings and their interfacing with other systems isn’t always working properly,” Jeitschko said in the email. “This requires remediation and we have worked around the clock to address it.”

The health insurance issues do seem to be resolved as of the date of publication- as The State News could not find a graduate assistant who did not have health insurance after Jeitschko’s claim.

However, the fellowship disbursement still remains a problem. In an email from Jeitschko to only the graduate fellows on Sep. 18, he said that pay issues were still a work in progress.

“Unfortunately, we do anticipate that some of you will experience additional delays and other potential issues,” Jeitschko wrote.

Jeitschko also announced that MSU will be offering interest-free, short-term loans for those affected by the fellowship pay issues.

System issues aren’t the only difficulties graduate assistants and fellows are facing. Many are frustrated with the university over its handling of the recent upsurge of positive COVID-19 cases on campus.

A graduate teaching assistant, who wished to stay anonymous, said that failures in the MSU contact-tracing system have led to close contacts of a positive student in their class being unaware that they were potentially exposed to COVID-19.

They also did not have the ability to inform the students, as current university policy forbids disclosing any information on students who test positive.

“It feels super negligent of me, as an instructor, to let these students continue roaming around campus,” the teaching assistant said.

Coupled with instructors no longer being notified when a student in their class tests positive and hour long triage line wait times, numerous teaching assistants are losing faith in MSU’s contact-tracing.

“It needs to be much easier for people to call and report that they tested positive,” the teaching assistant said. “Why are we even bothering to contact-trace if we’re not going to tell people for days.”

Modality switch requests have also been a hot-button topic among graduate teaching assistants. When the GEU and Union of Non-Tenure Track Faculty engaged in a special bargaining session with MSU in summer 2021, modality switches were a major point both organizations wanted in their agreement.

According to the Memorandum of Understanding that came out of that session, instructors have the right to “discuss the mode of instruction with the relevant unit leadership.” That leadership must also “make reasonable efforts to accommodate employees’ requests.”

Instructors, including graduate teaching assistants, can currently request a modality switch through their department leadership. The dean or department chair makes the decision, but is required to consult with the Provost’s Office for final approval.

GEU Information Officer Ava Hill claims that the requirement to consult with the Provost’s Office has led to an environment where modality switches will essentially always be denied.

“They’re just saying that they’ll have the meeting with a predetermined outcome now,” Hill said. “That’s obviously not in the spirit of the agreement.”

Surrounding everything is a lack of communication between administration and graduate students.

Both Santamaria and the anonymous fellow repeatedly cited poor communication regarding their respective insurance and pay issues.

“There’s no communication, and then there’s communication that is being said that is being backpedaled,” the fellow said.

The anonymous graduation teaching assistant said that they had to rely on the instructor of record to pass along emails from the administration. They said it makes them and other teaching assistants feel like they’re not real academic staff.

“We also are responsible for enforcing most of these policies,” they said. “Because there are a lot of classes where the instructor of record is not seeing students in-person, but the graduate TA’s are.”

With all the current difficulties, Hill said that this is the worst start to a fall semester she’s seen during her tenure at GEU.

“It certainly seems a lot worse than we’ve had in the past,” Hill said. “… I definitely never had these kinds of issues in my department in past years.”

Two events are scheduled this week to address the many issues surrounding graduate students. A protest titled “Wide Awake” will be hosted by GEU has been rescheduled for Sept. 24 and a virtual town hall hosted by UNTF will take place on Sept. 23.