Support Graduate Employees at Northern Michigan University

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This petition is being issued on behalf of concerned members of the greater Northern Michigan University community, including but not limited to students, faculty/staff, parents, alumni, and members of the surrounding Marquette community and beyond in support of graduate students in the at Northern Michigan University regarding urgent safety and welfare issues.

The university’s current plan to commence face-to-face instruction for the Fall 2020 semester brings several risks to the safety of faculty, staff, and students at the university as well as the health of the surrounding community. In contrast to the Winter 2020 semester, the Fall 2020 semester poses significantly greater challenges in protecting the aforementioned university stakeholders from the negative effects of COVID-19 due to the increasing number of positive cases on both a national and local scale that we have seen in the previous weeks.

We acknowledge Northern Michigan University’s implementation of new safety procedures to augment the slow of disease transmission on campus. President Erikson has stated “We will take all reasonable measures necessary to make classes, housing, dining, student events and all university activities safe.” To our understanding, this has included the implementation of a mandatory face-mask policy in conjunction with the CDC’s guidelines, the conversion of many classes to an online format, and an increase in cleaning procedures. It is evident that Northern Michigan University is striving to present a thoughtful, reasonable, and well-researched plan for the Fall 2020 semester. However, these decisions as they stand do not entirely protect certain university stakeholders, namely graduate employees (including, but not limited to, graduate assistants and teaching/tutorial assistants), from the potentially deadly risk that COVID-19 poses, and a lack of modification may result in negative long-term consequences for the university and its surrounding community.

Northern Michigan University has recognized that there has been an unprecedented effort on behalf of graduate employees, faculty, and staff to provide the best possible quality of education for undergraduate students under these challenging circumstances. But this continued success is entirely contingent upon the health and well-being of these parties. The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) “Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education” states that an environment which provides entirely virtual learning options, activities, and events assumes the lowest risk of COVID-19 spread. Northern Michigan University is entirely capable of converting to an all-online format for the Fall 2020 semester, as it did for the majority of the Winter 2020 semester. However, current plans for the Fall 2020 semester include small, in-person gatherings which the CDC categorizes as “More Risk”, and “High Risk” for COVID-19 transmission.

By continuing forward with these plans for in-person instruction, the University is putting its faculty, staff, and students at an increased risk for COVID-19 transmission. In the case of graduate employees, to our understanding many were not given the option to fulfill their teaching obligations online without having to file for accommodation or meet certain requirements, and subsequently avoid this increased risk. Their responsibilities now contain new hazards which pose a significant threat to the safety of themselves and their families in addition to the students in their charge.

Other higher-education institutions have largely avoided exposing their stakeholders to the risks that COVID-19 poses by switching to an entirely online instructional model. As Northern Michigan University has explicitly chosen to proceed forward with in-person instruction instead of this online instruction, the university is knowingly subjecting many of its stakeholders to the risk of COVID-19 infection and the short and long-term health consequences that befall the infected, which includes, but is not limited to, kidney failure, liver failure, heart failure, an increased risk of stroke, and other fatal consequences. Further, as COVID-19 is a new disease, it may pose several unknown risks to long-term health that have not yet been documented.

If Northern Michigan University proceeds with its intent to hold any in-person instruction, we are asking the University for the following concessions to be made:

●  Northern Michigan University will provide adequate health insurance to all graduate employees without decreasing take-home pay. This will be a permanent policy.
●  If it is possible, Northern Michigan University will provide the option for all graduate employees to conduct their job responsibilities online for the duration of the pandemic without stipulations.
●  If instruction or job responsibilities can not be conducted online, or if a graduate employee chooses to instruct in-person, then graduate employees will be provided with a hazard pay at +25% of standard pay per hour for the duration of the pandemic crisis.

Although two aforementioned requests won’t greatly mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19 during in-person instruction, they will help to greatly reduce the financial burdens and stress which may come in seeking treatment for COVID-19 and will increase access to treatment for the concerned parties. Moreover, graduate employees of Northern Michigan University, with the support of senior faculty members at NMU, have advocated for an increase in benefits and compensation that is better aligned with other institutions of higher-learning for some time. Graduate employees recently received a small bonus, increasing our annual stipend to $9,300. To contrast, graduate students at Michigan Tech receive a minimum of $14,288 annual stipend in addition to financial assistance in obtaining health insurance. These requests, if accommodated, would put Northern Michigan University on a higher level of graduate employee care, which would provide long-term benefits for the university in addition to the short-term benefits that have already been outlined in addition to aiding in the health of the larger Northern Michigan University and Marquette Communities.

We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has provided significant economic challenges in the United States, and that the University must make sound financial decisions moving forward. By supporting the University’s investment in its graduate employees, by investing in our safety and well-being, Northern Michigan University is helping to bring the best quality education to the undergraduate students that we have direct (whether in-person or virtual) contact with multiple times a week and that we have a significant impact upon.

We, the concerned graduate students and employees in the Department of Biology, are enthusiastic about continuing our responsibilities at Northern Michigan University, but are concerned for the safety of our well-being and the well-being of graduate employees in other parts of the University. Previously, a petition asking for these concessions from the University for the benefit of its graduate employees and surrounding community was inadequately responded to - and to date the options for healthcare that the university is offering to us - namely access to the Vielmetti Health Care center, and not comprehensive coverage of COVID-19 related treatment should infection lead to short or long term health complications, are not adequate in our opinion.  

We, the signatories, hereby show our support for graduate employees in asking for these concessions from the university for their benefit and for the benefit of all at Northern Michigan University.