Protect Graduate Employees During Covid-19 Pandemic

University of Northern Michigan: President Erickson, the Board of Trustees, and Dean Eckert

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Hal Hulan

This petition demands immediate action to protect the safety of Northern Michigan University's Graduate Employees (whose safety and well-being have been too long ignored by the university's higher administration) during the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite rising numbers of Covid-19 cases nationally, NMU is determined to reconvene face-to-face instruction this Fall, 2020, in mere weeks. The continuance of in-person instruction at NMU endangers all of us. NMU's Graduate Employees firmly denounce this decision made against the best interests of students, faculty, NMU employees, and the community writ large. What's more, Graduate Employees demand the university be held accountable for our safety by providing all graduate assistants with health care, hazard pay, and the option to teach online. These demands are reasonable and the minimum necessary actions to ensure our safety this Fall. We thank you for supporting these actions and standing in solidarity with NMU graduate assistants.

Please note: This petition is to be signed by Graduate Employees (all paid graduate students) at the university only. If you are not a graduate employee, you can support us by sharing and promoting this petition! Thank you all for your standing in solidarity with us!

Petition by

To: University of Northern Michigan: President Erickson, the Board of Trustees, and Dean Eckert
From: [Your Name]

To President Erickson, the Board of Trustees, and Dean Eckert:

We write to you representing Graduate Employees in positions across Northern Michigan University’s campus. As students, instructors, lab assistants, administrative workers, and community members, Graduate Employees are uniquely positioned to examine the present circumstances from multiple angles. We have been designated by the signatories to speak on their behalf regarding the urgent safety and welfare issues in need of your immediate action.

We reject the university’s plan to commence face-to-face instruction for the Fall 2020 semester. This decision jeopardizes the safety of faculty, staff, and students at the university as well as the health of the surrounding community. Amidst the rising number of Covid-19 cases nationwide - numbers far higher than those that precipitated the university’s suspension of face-to-face instruction in the winter - public events, sports leagues, and educational institutions around the country have suspended in-person operations at the advice of public health officials. It is clear that such caution is the only sufficient path organizations can take to adequately protect the lives and health of their communities. As of July 15, Covid-19 cases are rising in Marquette County, a rural area in no way prepared to cope with a serious outbreak. Despite this, NMU’s administration has continued to move forward with its plan to re-convene face-to-face instruction in the fall.

Graduate Employees, with the support of senior faculty members at NMU, have for some time advocated for just compensation and benefits. We have been met with silence from the administration regarding our lack of healthcare, and a minuscule campus-wide wage increase was marketed to us as the fruits and end of our petitioning. Meanwhile, President Erickson was given a “bonus” of $50,000, over five times greater than the yearly $9,300 on which Graduate Employees are expected to subsist. The university’s refusal to meet our needs has already forced past and present Graduate Employees to work at demanding part-time jobs, seek assistance from food pantries, forego healthcare—and now, with classes set to resume in the midst of a pandemic, our situation has at last become untenable.

Graduate Employees are being required to put their students, their families, their communities and themselves at risk without healthcare provisions during this pandemic. We are being required to endure, individually, a byzantine, bureaucratic process to prove that we are “vulnerable enough” to be “allowed” to teach online. And in the background we are being asked to do unpaid labor in order to plan our courses for classroom conditions where some of our students may be present while others may be remote and while all of us wear masks, social distance, and sit behind plexiglass walls. Meanwhile, the administration offers little to no transparency on how Graduate Employees' safety will be prioritized in the day-to-day functioning of the university, or the actual risks we collectively face. Online instruction is imperfect, and many among us would be the first to say that, on the whole, we prefer to teach and learn in person. However, the planned conditions, as NMU has outlined them, are a sham—in-person instruction in name only.

We state firmly as educators that learning cannot thrive under these conditions. Given our concern for both the health and education of our students and ourselves, we cannot accept these conditions.

On behalf of all Graduate Employees at NMU we call on the administration to attend to the following immediate demands:

- Permanently provide health insurance through NMU to all Graduate Employees without a decrease in take-home pay.
- Provide the option, without stipulation, for Graduate Employees to conduct their job responsibilities online for the duration of the pandemic crisis.
- Provide hazard pay at +25% of standard pay per hour to those Graduate Employees who choose to or must work in person for the duration of the pandemic crisis.

These demands would provide Graduate Employees with bare-minimum security and support should the university continue on this reckless path for the duration of the international pandemic crisis. It is our utmost desire to continue to perform our jobs and studies to the best of our abilities under conditions that prioritize everyone’s health and safety.

In a recent statement, AFT Michigan collected a survey of over 1200 of its members from college campuses across the state and concluded that “it is in the best interest of students, faculty, staff and our communities for higher education to be conducted online to every extent possible until an effective vaccine can be distributed widely to the general public.” The return to face-to-face instruction must be safe for everyone, not just for life on campus, but off campus as well. While it may be theoretically possible that the administration can assure the safety of every community member before the distribution of a vaccine, the present state of affairs proves such assurances to be beyond their abilities at this time.

In the interest of the health and safety of the custodial workers who will be required to clean countless surfaces and screens in addition to their usual work; of the staff who will be required to serve food and come in close contact with many people on a daily basis; of the faculty who will be required to teach in enclosed spaces surrounded by absurd impediments to education; of the students who are being lured to campus with the promise of community and education only to find those things severely compromised; of all the community members that live and work in and around the university; and in the interest of the health and safety of those we love and care for - be they here in Marquette, or miles away—we ask that NMU follow the lead of institutions as diverse as Harvard and the California State University system in moving to primarily online instruction. Failure to institute these changes will needlessly risk the lives and long-term health of both students and employees of Northern Michigan University.

If these demands are not responded to and met by August 3rd, 2020, we will be forced to take further action to protect ourselves and the larger NMU/Marquette community we hold dear.

We await your timely response,

The Undersigned