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January 3, 2018

UMass fails to pay an estimated 400 graduate students on first payday

Graduate students protest after UMass withheld paychecks from 517 graduate-student-workers in 2013.  Collegian File Photo

Graduate students protest after UMass withheld paychecks from 517 graduate-student-workers in 2013.
(Collegian File Photo)

Every other Friday during the academic year, the University of Massachusetts pays its employees. This year, the first payday was Sept. 25.

For some employees, however, Sept. 25 came and went without a deposit in their account.

“I had no idea at all (I wasn’t going to be paid),” said Candice Travis, a graduate student-worker in the political science department. “I woke up on Friday, and I was prepping for class and stuff, and I checked my bank account, and was like, ‘Why is this still so low?’”

According to Anais Surkin, union organizer and representative for the Graduate Employee Organization, approximately 400 graduate student-workers did not get paid on the first payday of the year, and not just first-year students. However, the union isn’t sure of the exact number because the University is not releasing the information, despite filing an information request.

Surkin said UMass told her she would receive the data on Nov. 20, correlating with an agreement signed between the University and the union last year about late salary payments. Surkin asserts that graduate students “have a legal right to request information related to our contracts.”

Though some graduate students got paid on Oct. 9, the second payday of the semester, Adam Garfield, a graduate student in the labor studies department, said he knows of some students who still haven’t been paid after two pay cycles. Garfield was paid in full on the second payday, but not the first.

In a statement to the Daily Collegian, UMass spokesperson Patrick Callahan said there are a variety of reasons why graduate student-workers may not be paid on time, including departments not submitting paperwork on time, complications of grant funding or teaching assistant assignments, or graduate students not submitting their required documentation “in a timely and accurate fashion.”

Surkin said while there are students who didn’t submit their paperwork on time, and it is the fault of those students in that situation, the majority of graduate students and departments submitted their paperwork on time and people are still not getting paid.

“It’s a university and HR processing issue,” Surkin said, and the GEO plans to take action.

Getting better, but still not there

Two years ago, Surkin said about 530 graduate student-workers were paid over a month late, which sparked the University and GEO to sit down and come to an agreement in the hope of avoiding an issue in the future.

The agreement, signed in September 2014, set up a process for emergency salary payments in the event that graduate students aren’t paid. Graduate student-workers can receive up to 80 percent of their paycheck if they aren’t paid on time, which leaves room for any deductions the government or UMass has to make.

Surkin, who was a key proponent for the agreement, said signing the agreement last year has helped in a number of ways, but obviously hasn’t solved the problem. For example, the day before the missed payday, a lot of students were notified they wouldn’t receive a paycheck and were told to go to their department to apply for an ESP. In the past, there was no notification and no ESP.

However, Surkin said that “ESP is not a paycheck.”

“Yes, it’s gotten better, but it’s not as good as a paycheck,” she added.

Additionally, some students, including Travis and Sid Issar, also a political science graduate student, never received a notification. And getting an ESP is a process – the student’s department has to apply for it on behalf of them, and the student, if approved, has to go to the bursar’s office to pick up a physical check, a process that took Travis over an hour to complete.

A traditional payday is completed via direct deposit, so picking up a physical check could pose problems for a graduate student. Issar, who moved to the area from Brooklyn, has a Citibank account.  However there is not a Citibank location to deposit a check at for over 50 miles, so he had to use alternative means.

“My girlfriend was visiting me that weekend,” Issar said, “and she has a Bank of America, so I deposited it into her account, but it’s not yet cleared in her account because that takes some time. Then she’s going to have to PayPal it to me, and PayPal takes three or four days.”

Issar said overall, the process was very stressful, a sentiment that Garfield and Travis both echoed.

Travis and Issar said they did get paid on Oct. 9.

Wage increase

Surkin said another issue is that the University has not given student-workers a pay increase that was agreed to in May. GEO agreed with the University to a 3.5 percent wage increase in May 2015, then another 3.5 percent increase in September 2015, and another in September 2016.

However, the University processes wage increases by waiting for every department to send in all the paperwork related to the increase, Surkin said. The departments are instructed to write each contract at the old wage, and UMass then applies the wage increase across the board. People don’t see the increase until “who knows when,” Surkin said, estimating it wouldn’t be until November that raises would kick in.

“The minimum wage is higher than what people are getting paid,” Surkin said, adding that it relates to the idea the University seems to have that graduate students don’t really deserve or need to be respected or paid for their work.

“It’s just another way the University is taking money from us,” she said, and she said it happens every time graduate student-workers get a raise.

‘A broader idea’

The late pay issue comes less than a month after Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy made a joke at the graduate student convocation referencing an “oath of poverty” that graduate students take when they enroll.

Travis said she was “shocked” when Subbaswamy made the comment.

“It seems like he doesn’t take seriously the fact that we work to educate undergraduate students, which is part of the major mission of UMass as a university,” she said.

Travis added, “You want to come to an institution and make an impact on the students and on the instuition itself, and that’s a big thing to not get the same respect from administrators. It’s upsetting.”

Issar said the biggest problem with the chancellor’s comment is that it assumes students come from a middle class background and have money or family to fall back on.

“It sort of has this very specific idea of where students are coming from into higher education, and it sort of takes lightly this struggle that a graduate student has … (and) that’s a dangerous assumption to make in the first place because there’s a lot of students from working class backgrounds or international students (with) exchange rates,” he said.

“It’s just unfortunate that that was the wording he used, but this issue cannot be fixed by the students,” Garfield said. “It has to be fixed by the administration, and there are people that could be better at fixing this problem than (students).”

Issar said the issue was “a broader idea” about how bureaucracies and financial institutions operate. If a person misses a payment, there are repercussions for the individual, such as fees or a lower credit rating. Institutions, however, are never penalized for it – “they brush it under the rug.”

“I feel like it’s only fair that there should be some sort of reciprocity, or institutions should be penalized or liable when they make late payments because it affects an individual’s ability to actually make payments to credit cards or loans or whatever it is,” Issar said.

Patrick Hoff can be reached at and followed on Twitter @Hoff_Patrick16.

2 Responses to “UMass fails to pay an estimated 400 graduate students on first payday”
  1. Ian Hagerty says:

    great article

  2. Mike says:

    Depends on what type of loan it is. If it’s FED Loan they will take their money back. It is what it is.

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