Demand Johns Hopkins Protect its Graduate Employees amid COVID-19

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Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander signed this petition

Graduate students are facing a drastic reduction in our ability to conduct our research and teaching work in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The administration is expecting us to transfer our teaching to a different medium without the guarantee of adequate material support, while research assistants will be set back weeks if not months as experiments are cancelled or lay idle. The lack of access to library resources, archives, laboratory spaces, office and work space, meeting rooms, strong internet connections, and face-to-face interactions with our advisors means that we can anticipate substantial delays in our ability to complete dissertation projects. Students caring for ill loved ones, those with children, those without adequate space for a home office, students with pre-existing health conditions or who are immunocompromised, and international students are all at particularly extreme disadvantage. Students are also at heightened risk of losing time due to their own illness. We are, as always, going to continue to work hard and do our best given the circumstances, but it is concerning that Johns Hopkins University is operating under the assumption that this will not alter our time to degree nor impact our graduate education.

The university administration itself described graduate student teaching assistants as “essential employees” who are expected to continue their assigned responsibilities in the face of this disruption. (Vice Dean Matthew Roller, March 16, 2020). We understand this so long as graduate students are alleviated of normal standards for progress toward degree completion, research output, and teaching performance. It is telling that now, in a time of crisis, the administration admits what we really are as graduate students: essential employees. As essential employees working in extraordinary circumstances to ensure that Johns Hopkins continues to function we have a right and obligation to pursue protections for graduate workers.

The university's own public health experts project that this pandemic will likely necessitate limited to full shut downs for months. We are asking the Johns Hopkins administration to commit to the following in order to protect its employees, assist its vulnerable community members, and reassure all of the university’s commitment to leadership.

  1. Funding Extension:
    As graduate students have their work postponed and set back, we want a guarantee from the University that funding will match with progress disruption and a funding extension of at least one semester be granted. We want to ensure no one is cut off from the financial and material support they need to survive if graduate students are unable to maintain research expectations and meet writing deadlines during this crisis.
  2. No Retribution:
    1. No students are to be put on probation, suspended, or expelled for lack of progress during the duration of university closure due to COVID-19. Timelines for graduation and degree progress need to reflect the severity of current conditions.
    2. Johns Hopkins should consult with professors, and graduate student teaching assistants and instructors about transitioning to pass/fail evaluation for the spring semester, as has already been implemented at other institutions.
  3. Suspension of Non-Resident Fees:
    Students who are unable to travel to campus, who have been displaced due to travel or medical restrictions, or who need degree completion time extensions should have their non-resident fees waived.
  4. Health Insurance Extension:
    For students set to graduate within the year, the prospect of losing their health insurance amid a global health crisis is at the forefront of their minds. We ask that the university extend health insurance for graduate students who are graduating amid this crisis, and fund coverage for all current graduate students, regardless of degree progress.
  5. Healthcare Primer and RX Guidance:
    As university services begin to shut down or trend to limited access, our graduate student body needs to know what services they can still access. Students with prescription needs will still need to access psychiatric or primary care services. We are asking the university to offer a centralized resource to guide them through their insurance and health care system at this time, linking them to the care they need. This is of particular need among our international student body, who have expressed confusion and concern navigating these resources. We suggest providing guidance and a plan for students to get the medication they need.
  6. Recognize graduate students as employees:
    As pointed out, graduate students have been defined as “essential employees” towards the operation of the University. We ask that the university apply consistent logic in viewing us as employees, and recognize our right to organize and negotiate on behalf of our interests. If we are to be considered and treated as employees, the same legal protections must be afforded.
  7. Job security for all JHU workers:
    We ask that the university ensure no workers at Johns Hopkins lose compensation or have payments delayed during the public health crisis. If employees are not able to complete their usual jobs, the university should negotiate with them to find appropriate work. We further ask that contract laborers will not have their contracts unilaterally adjusted by Hopkins or their positions terminated due to the slowdown on campus.

We recognize that we are not the only workers affected by Johns Hopkins’ current operating decisions. We stand in solidarity with professors who deserve clarity on how tenure evaluations will be altered, and who need similar support in transitioning to online education; with contract and work-study employees who face loss in wages due to university closures; with workers who are still expected to be on campus and who risk COVID-19 exposure; with undergraduates who are struggling to find safe living situations after having been pressured out of university housing; and with researchers and health care providers in the Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine who are working aggressively to face the current crisis. Together, we enable the educational and research missions of the university to proceed, and we need material assurances that this will be possible into the future.