SUNY-ESF Petition for a Living-Wage Stipend for Graduate Employees

SUNY-ESF Petition for a Living-Wage Stipend for Graduate Employees

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Living Wage Campaign SUNY ESF started this petition to SUNY ESF

We, the undersigned Faculty, Staff, and Graduate Students of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and members of the greater ESF community, hereby submit the following:

We contend that the current minimum stipends for Graduate Assistant (GA) and Research Assistant (RA) appointments and graduate students employed as visiting faculty throughout ESF are unlivable. We come to this conclusion after a review of the Typical Expenses listed on the MIT Living Wage Calculator, Cost of Attendance on the ESF Financial Aid Office website, and lived experience.

Graduate employee labor at ESF is fundamental to ESF’s mission as an R2 doctoral research institution. A few of the numerous ways that RAs sustain faculty research and scholarship include: conducting laboratory and field work that lead to publications; managing historical collections; engaging in public outreach; maintaining college facilities; and working with governmental agencies. 

Additionally, GAs - who represent a significant number of students in ESF graduate programs - perform labor that is fundamental to the quality of undergraduate education. GAs teach labs and recitations, chaperone field trips, prepare lessons and classrooms, contribute new content to courses, host office hours, provide study aids to students, proctor exams, grade assignments, maintain teaching collections and live specimens, and interface between ESF as an institution and its undergraduate students. Graduate students are also employed as visiting faculty leading their own courses. As ESF graduate students graduate and move on to hold positions at academic and other institutions, they constitute a network of collaborators for ESF researchers and promote the reputation of ESF nationally and internationally.

Financial compensation of graduate employees at ESF has significantly lagged behind cost of living increases and fee increases. The failure of SUNY-ESF to adequately compensate their GA and RA workforce has caused substantial hardship to numerous students. Inadequate compensation has compromised students’ capacity to finish their degrees in a timely manner, undermined their competitiveness on the professional job market, harmed graduate student employees’ short- and long-term financial security, and negatively impacted the physical and emotional well-being of students. SUNY-ESF’s continued exploitative relationship to their graduate student workers tarnishes the reputation of the institution and threatens its ability to recruit the best and brightest students. 

In addition to these concerns regarding  school year compensation, many graduate students are expected to perform summer research without compensation, as Principal Investigators often cannot guarantee summer funding. With this large gap in income, students are frequently forced to choose between a summer job and performing research required to complete their degrees.

For the 2019-2020 academic year, the cost of living in Syracuse, excluding educational expenses, is estimated at $24,165 for a single-person household (MIT Living Wage Calculator). According to ESF’s Financial Aid Office, graduate student fees currently total $1,780 for two semesters. Along with textbooks and other mandatory academic expenses, this raises the cost of living and education for ESF graduate employees to around $26,000 per year. 

These figures clearly demonstrate that graduate employee stipends, the vast majority of which are below $14,500, are unlivable. The current base stipend for those pursuing an MS is $12,288, below the 2019 federal poverty line of $12,490 and less than half of MIT-calculated living wage. This discrepancy is particularly alarming given that  in the 2018-2019 academic year, the base stipend and federal poverty line for a single-person household were both $12,060. The stipend for MS students has fallen from equaling the poverty line to nearly 2% below it, a dangerous trend. Base stipend for those pursuing a PhD is $14,100, which covers barely half of annual expenses.

International students, who comprise one third of the graduate student body, are particularly impacted by SUNY-ESF’s exploitative labor practices. Multiple constraints limit off-campus employment for international students, and their on-campus employment is limited to 20 hours per week — a ceiling which does not afford them a living stipend. This dire situation now coincides with an increased tax burden on student visa holders as a result of the 2017 “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” which eliminated many deductions and increased the standard deduction that international students are barred from receiving.

We affirm that it is not reasonable or ethical to expect graduate students to take out supplementary loans or seek outside employment to meet the minimum cost of living and education. Although this is a last resort for American students, their international peers do not have this option and consistently have to turn to family members or other sponsors to continue their education. Such circumstances delimit access to graduate study for students already assuming significant debt burdens from undergraduate study and those who cannot gain access to reasonable loans or other financial support.

The deficit between graduate employee stipends and cost of living and education forces many to live in poverty while seeking outside employment and/or incurring debt. Potential graduate students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds with poor credit or who cannot rely on familial financial support are systematically excluded from ESF graduate programs. ESF discussed an increase in overall tuition and fees during the 2018-2019 academic year but does not acknowledge ever-increasing living expenses. The Graduate Cost of Attendance listed on the ESF Financial Aid Office website currently underestimates many Syracuse living expenses, without providing any sources or methodology, a glaring omission for a research institution. While we acknowledge that ESF contemplates an institutional budget shortfall, it must acknowledge that it forces an even more extreme and immediate financial burden on its graduate employees, while possessing the power to rectify this burden swiftly and without undue financial strain.

We therefore demand the SUNY-ESF raise the minimum living wage stipend for all university-employed graduate students to $26,000. This stipend would allow graduate students to afford the $24,165 cost of living in Syracuse and pay $1,477 in mandatory fees imposed by ESF, in addition to other educational expenses.

It is the position of the undersigned that SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry must pay a living stipend to all its graduate student employees, and that safeguards be implemented to guarantee GAs representation in the decision-making process regarding their livelihoods.

We hereby call upon the Board of Trustees, President, and Chief Financial Officer to take the following actions with all due haste:

By December 20, 2019, form a permanent Joint Living Wage Committee or Task Force composed of equal numbers of administrative, faculty, and graduate student representatives charged with increasing graduate stipends and cooperatively addressing other issues related to graduate student financial security in a timely fashion,
Beginning August 1, 2020, increase stipends to $26,000 per year for all GAs, RAs, and graduate students employed as visiting faculty, and
Refrain indefinitely from eliminating current GA positions and/or implementing hiring freezes on GAs.

We further insist that ESF abstain from implementing any proposals, now or in the future, that will directly affect graduate employee financial security, position availability, and/or workload without direct input on such plans during their formation by graduate representatives and endorsement prior to implementation by the Graduate Student Association. All proposals or policy changes relating to graduate employee financial security, position availability, and/or workload must be made available in writing to the graduate student body and ESF community prior to implementation. Finally, stipend increases must be integrated into ESF’s budget as recurring and sustained expenses.

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