GEO holds ‘child-in’ to emphasize need for affordable childcare

By Caeli Chesin

(Caeli Chesin/ Daily Collegian)

Editor’s Note: A dollar amount was misquoted in the original article. Changamire was working with less than $15,000 a year, not $1,500 a year. 

University of Massachusetts Graduate Employee Organization members initiated a two-hour long ‘child-in’ outside Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s office Monday afternoon in order to emphasize the urgent need for affordable childcare on campus.

“A group of people that are particularly hindered and treated unfairly by the University are grad students that are parents. They have particular difficulties when it comes to making it through the month on really low pay, their health insurance needs to be more affordable, their childcare center isn’t as good as it should be, there are really long waitlists to get in,” said GEO co-chair Santiago Vidales. “We just want to make sure, through our contract negotiations, we are getting people in a better position to finish their degrees. But to do that, we need to highlight to the administrators what the real issues of our people are.”

During the sit-in, children and their mothers worked together to create posters. Statements written on the posters included, “You want production w/o reproduction,” “Why should I have to choose between being a mom and a student?” and “Mothers need space in the workplace.”

The GEO is a unit of Auto Workers Local 2322 that represents and protects graduate workers at the University. According to Vidales, the union began bargaining with the University last April. This coming Friday, they will be back at the bargaining table to discuss their negotiations. Vidales hopes actual proposals will begin to be made “in order to move the ball forward.”

From 2 to 4 p.m., between 10 and 20 members of GEO protested. Conversation ranged from the contract negotiation, work, studies, students and their individual family lives.

Thirty minutes into the child-in, two suited men came into the office to speak to the Chancellor.

“Can you tell the Chancellor that we’re also here?” Vidales asked as the men were led directly back to his office.

About halfway into the sit-in, the Chancellor’s Chief of Staff Rolanda C. Burney came out to the lobby to hear from the union. Vidales said that while GEO is in a bargaining process with the University, they have yet to hear back about the demands that they have made.

“We’re here specifically to highlight issues related to parenting and family,” Vidales said. “We have several demands that speak to the childcare center being better, and making sure that the family insurance plan is more affordable and more accessible.”

Tiarra Cooper, a third-year PhD student in German and Scandinavian studies, said that when she first started at the University, she was working full-time and therefore needed full-time care for her children.

“It was $1,300 a month at the childcare center on campus. That’s over two-thirds of my pay. That’s really unfeasible,” Cooper said. “When there is not affordable and accessible childcare —because women are primary caretakers — it excludes women from higher education.”

She also spoke about how long the waiting list is for those eligible for Head-Start or subsidies —in some cases from nine months to two years.

“I put [my son] on when he was born and he’s still on the waiting list, so if I didn’t have family friends do out-of-pocket care, I wouldn’t be able to continue to teach and study,” said Cooper.

Joy Hayward-Jansen, a seventh-year PhD student in the English department employed by the University, has a daughter and explained that a big portion of her and her wife’s paychecks goes to childcare.

“I’ve really seen the childcare issue preventing progress in my degree because of extra jobs on top of [education]. I feel like I’m not making progress in my degree,” Hayward-Jansen said.

Nyaradzai Changamire, a fourth-year PhD student in international education, GEO mobilization coordinator and mother of a six-year old, expressed similar concerns. As an international student, she is required to be on the health insurance plan in which the University only covers 90 percent, leaving her to cover the last ten percent out-of-pocket, which Changamire says is often over $1,000. Changamire spoke on having to survive working on campus on less than $15,000 a year, leaving her to reach out to food banks in Amherst.

“Childcare is very expensive here in Amherst, and I am restricted by immigration law,” Changamire says. She added that the toughest months are during the summer, since she cannot work off-campus and does not get paid by the University during those months.

“I’m still expected, as a graduate student, to make progress on my studies. I need time to commit to my studies over the summer, but I’m not getting paid and I cannot afford childcare, so I’m not making as much progress as I would like to because of those complications,” Changmire says.

Hayward-Jansen expressed that it is also hard for families who make it just past the line to apply for subsidies from the University and other funds from GEO and Graduate Student Services for help.

“How can we support families who are not at the poverty-level, but still are struggling?” Hayward-Jansen asked. “Maybe its health insurance that costs less so those paychecks are all of a sudden $500. Even if you’re not at the bottom, it is really hard.”

Mothers also expressed problems regarding their accessibility to tube or feed on campus, with limited private spaces designated for mothers.

“There’s no real reserved lactating or feeding space in Herter, for instance, and considering the amount of people that are in Herter, I would imagine it would be really reasonable or beneficial to designate at least one space in such a large building for breastfeeding and pumping,” said Cooper.

After the mothers spoke, Burney was handed written testimonies from the GEO regarding child care services. Burney said she didn’t have anything additional to say since she last spoke with the GEO because the bargaining process is ongoing.

When asked what she hopes would come out of the child-in, GEO co-chair and fifth-year PhD student in sociology Alyssa Goldstein said she hoped that the University would not only make changes to better support these working families, but “[would] address the systemic inequalities in the childcare center on campus, and make it a more equitable space for graduate students to bring their children.”

Caeli Chesin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @caeli_chesin.