Even in a Pandemic, the University of Illinois Doesn’t Care About Its Grad Workers

Despite the coronavirus outbreak, the University of Illinois has jacked up health care premiums for graduate workers and refuses to grant additional sick days to those who test positive for COVID-19. This is what workers have to deal with in the corporatized university.

Timothy L. Killeen (left), the president of the University of Illinois, and then–board chairman Christopher Kennedy, on November 19, 2014 in Springfield, Illinois. (Illinois Sprinfield / Flickr)

In recent years, the University of Illinois system has been a major site of graduate student worker organizing. Unionized graduate workers at both the Urbana-Champaign and Chicago campuses launched weeks-long strikes in 2018 and 2019, respectively, to secure contracts that provided basic financial stability.

Although waged by separate grad union locals, the two strikes were sparked by the same anti-union, anti-worker university administration. Now, amid a seemingly unprecedented health care and economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Illinois administration is once again revealing its apparent contempt for grad workers.

On March 12, three days after Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker declared a statewide state of emergency, the UI Board of Trustees jacked up student health insurance premiums, hitting both grads and undergrads. At the Urbana-Champaign campus (UIUC), premiums will shoot up by a whopping 33 percent beginning this fall. The move came at the same time the board voted to spend $311.8 million on putting up new buildings, and two months after the UI president was awarded a $235,000 raise.

“It is appalling that the U of I raise health care fees during a global pandemic,” the UIUC Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), the local representing graduate workers at the Urbana-Champaign campus, said in a statement. “At a time when UIUC graduate employees already struggle to pay for health care during summer months, the UI [Board of Trustees] has unilaterally decided to increase the financial burden we hold just to stay healthy.”

Meanwhile, at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), student health care premiums will rise by a comparatively modest 3.5 percent this fall. Under UIC GEO’s contract, grad workers — whose current baseline salary is $19,730 — won’t be directly affected by the increase. However, graduate employees who have dependents covered by the university health insurance will feel the squeeze, as will any grad workers who plan to be covered next summer and future summers.

UIC is currently on an extended, two-week spring break due to the pandemic. When the semester resumes at the end of the month, all classes will be conducted online. Earlier today, UIC GEO — of which I am a member — held a teleconference with campus administrators to negotiate over the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the union’s major demands is that any grad worker who tests positive for COVID-19 receive at least fourteen days of paid sick leave.

As it stands, UIC grad workers are allowed 3.5 days of paid sick leave per semester, as well as one paid personal day. Obviously, three to four days of leave would not be enough for someone to recover from a virus that has hospitalized hundreds of thousands of people worldwide and has already killed over two hundred people in the United States.

Nevertheless, UIC administrators informed the union that the university will not extend paid sick leave to grad workers who contract the virus. When asked why, they simply told us the university was “not amenable” to it. The administrators explained that some university employees don’t have any paid sick leave, implying that grad workers are lucky to even have 3.5 days per semester. They then suggested we go talk to our “lobbyists” to get the government to expand paid sick leave. (For what it’s worth, as a small union local barely making ends meet, GEO doesn’t have lobbyists.)

Even Amazon, a corporation notorious for exploiting its workers, is guaranteeing two weeks of paid sick leave to any employee who contracts COVID-19. But the largest public university in Chicago is unwilling to offer the same benefit to its own student workers.

“What we asked the university to commit to is not unreasonable,” UIC GEO copresident Erin O’Callaghan says. “Fourteen days of paid sick leave for those who do contract COVID-19 is following basic guidelines from the CDC and ensuring bare minimum financial protections for our members.”

The UIC administration is also rejecting most of GEO’s other demands, including: additional paid family leave for grad workers caring for dependents who contract the virus; a moratorium on all university fees, which grad workers pay as a condition of employment (an obscene requirement even before the pandemic); and finally, that the university provide housing and stipends to international grad workers this summer in the event that they’re unable to return to their home countries.

The administration says it will “get back to” us on those.