(L-R) GC doctoral science student workers Carolina Fernandes Henriques, Nora Awadallah, Matthew Cleere and PSC GC Chapter Vice Chair Harry Blain organized to bring attention to long-standing pay issues.
Getting a paycheck at the right time in the right amount is not routine for many doctoral student workers at the Graduate Center (GC). Keeping track of pay sometimes involves a separate research project with a detailed Excel sheet and field research at Human Resources (HR) offices across CUNY. After years of organizing around the issue, the Graduate Center administration has taken some concrete steps to fix the issue.
“In any other situation, if you have an issue getting paid, it should be an easy fix. But here, [graduate students] have to go on a scavenger hunt,” said Nora Awadallah, a fifth-year doctoral student in the neuroscience program and a biology department steward for the PSC Graduate Center Chapter. “It takes weeks to sometimes months to hear back [and potentially fix these issues].”
It’s a Byzantine financial system, to be sure. Most graduate students in doctoral science programs are paid through multiple funding streams, beginning in their second year of study. They typically receive pay from the Graduate Center, the CUNY campus where they are conducting their research and through the Research Foundation of CUNY, a private-sector not-for-profit educational corporation that administers the grants that faculty receive for their labs where the science fellows work. Their paychecks from these sources often vary. Appointments are sometimes renewed every six months, which means if there is a change of assignment, new HR paperwork must be filed.
Problems with doctoral student pay at the GC aren’t new and have been an issue for doctoral students for more than a decade.
“Not only are there a lot of opportunities for something to go wrong, given that you’re renewing three different sources of pay twice a year, but when something does go wrong, it’s very hard to figure out what went wrong and who to talk to and how to get it fixed,” said Rob Veline, a second-year doctoral student in the neuroscience program.
This January, some science fellows took part in a public action. Neuroscience graduate students (a subprogram in the biology department) did not participate in the program’s admissions season at the end of January, where doctoral students traditionally volunteer their time helping to recruit prospective PhD candidates to the program. The fellows also posted their issues with pay on Twitter and received support from faculty at CUNY and science graduate students at other institutions.
“The number of trainees affected by this situation is galling. @GC_CUNY, please make the administrative changes necessary to ensure that this systemic neglect of our trainees ends,” tweeted Orie T. Shafer, a Graduate Center biology professor, who heads the Shafer Lab, a neuroscience initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center. “As admissions chair for @CUNYNeuro, I fully support this action by our graduate students,” he added.
There was an effective student boycott. One of the banner programs of the day, the student presentations on research, and a virtual social meeting with current students were both canceled. Since doctoral students do not get paid to participate in the admissions season, but they volunteer their time as students, the action was not a violation of the state’s Taylor Law, which prohibits public-sector workers from striking, or withholding their work, even if it is for a few hours.
GRAD CENTER RESPONSE
It’s after that public action that could harm admissions numbers and thus lower a program’s rankings, that the Graduate Center administration responded.
“The leadership at the Graduate Center and CUNY Central are deeply concerned about delays in payments for a number of PhD students in the sciences,” wrote Graduate Center President Robin Garrell and Provost Steve Everett in a joint January 31 email to Graduate Center students. “The burden of figuring out what is causing a payment delay and the remedy should not fall to students, individually or collectively. It is the responsibility of CUNY to create efficient payment systems that can provide funds to our students on a predictable schedule.”
Among the remedies proposed by the administration was the creation of a reporting portal where students would be able to submit information about delayed payments. In mid-February, the [email protected] email for reporting pay issues was set up. Clarion reached out to GC officials for further details. Messages are monitored daily by the GC Provost’s Office, which addresses or engages the appropriate person, office or campus for each request to ensure that payment issues are fixed as soon as possible. It also allows GC officials to identify recurring issues and frees doctoral students from the burden of finding their own solutions to pay issues.
“We are working toward the goal of significantly reducing the number of delayed payment cases going forward. Having this process in place to address individual issues is an important part of that solution,” said Tanya Domi, director of media relations at the Graduate Center.
The response from administration came after years of organizing. Beginning in 2019, Matthew Cleere, a science fellow who at the time was in his second year of the molecular, cellular and developmental biology program, encountered problems. That year, he had spent countless hours trying to figure out tax withholding inaccuracies in his paycheck. Once that problem was solved, he had another pay issue, where he was not getting paid. He likened his pay issues to playing a game of hot potato, where one human resources official would pass him off to another with no movement towards a solution. Many of his emails went unanswered.
Then his experience became more like whack-a-mole: once one problem was finally solved, weeks or months later, another, different problem with pay came up. At first, he thought the issues were unique to him.
After talking to another student at a biology program meeting, he discovered that he was not alone. Cleere and his colleagues began to organize. Together they conducted surveys, spoke out at departmental meetings, pushed to have the issue brought up at the GC’s Graduate Council meeting and sought letters of support from the executive officers who act as the department heads of many science programs.
In May 2021, more than 160 Graduate Center faculty and students signed an open letter to GC President Garrell, highlighting systemic failures in pay. Their efforts, were met with sympathy but no solutions.
In Spring 2021, Cleere brought the extent of the issue to the attention of the PSC Graduate Center Chapter, which has brought up the issue at nearly every labor-management meeting since.
“We’ve brought [the science fellows] into our union steward structure and now they regularly come to meetings with people who are union activists across the chapter,” said Harry Blain, a fifth-year doctoral student in political science and the vice chair of the PSC GC Chapter. Blain told Clarion that the chapter meetings became a place to build solidarity. “They get validation and added commitment because those students are also appalled at what the science fellows are going through.”
TOWARD A FIX
One doctoral student went an entire semester without receiving their research stipend. In another instance, a campus Human Resources office misplaced a grad worker’s paperwork for months, causing a lapse in health insurance during the pandemic. Students have borrowed from credit cards. One took a personal loan of $1,400 to pay rent because they were too embarrassed to again ask family and friends to borrow money, according to surveys that the graduate students conducted to document the extent of the issue.
In May 2021, the Graduate Center administration followed up with its own survey conducted by the Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness to doctoral students in biology, biochemistry, chemistry and physics. Nearly a third of students surveyed reported missing a paycheck; nearly a third were paid the incorrect amount; and more than 40% reported receiving late paychecks. Fourteen percent said pay problems occurred more than five times a year, and another 17% said they occurred “very often or always.” One problem with multiple late paychecks is that once a student is paid in a lump sum, they are often taxed in a higher tax bracket and will not recover the lost money until their tax refunds.
“It’s a rolling cycle of small fires,” said Cleere, describing the “systemic issue” that he and other science fellows deal with. He stated that several of his colleagues have given up trying to get the money that they are owed because the hassle of getting it solved is not worth their time.
Many science fellows told Clarion that they were glad to see some progress from the Graduate Center administration on the issue, but they hope that there will be an actual long-term fix to the problem. Doctoral students believe their research time should be spent doing science research and not constantly monitoring, deciphering or reporting their pay problems.
“The portal treats the symptom but not the disease,” Veline said. “The real solution is having one paycheck, one funding source.”