Opinion – Protecting Texas Alone: The UT System Has Failed Our Community

Underpaid at UT, a graduate student worker advocacy group, urgently calls for COVID protections

Opinion – Protecting Texas Alone: The UT System Has Failed Our Community

Classes have begun at the University of Texas at Austin and the school's administration has failed to adequately respond to widespread community concerns about health and safety. The school already made national headlines over the summer for stating that neither staff nor faculty death will trigger a cancelation of in-person classes. One courageous undergraduate went public the weekend before classes started, detailing UT's internal disregard for student concerns. The Daily Texan documented how unprepared UT is for in-person classes. As of this writing, there are 493 confirmed cases and one death within the UT community, and we all know those numbers will grow.

President Hartzell encourages students, staff, and faculty to "Protect Texas Together," but UT's administration has not taken its own advice. Instead, UT's leaders – the people with the greatest agency and the most resources at their disposal – have offloaded the responsibility of preventing the spread of COVID-19 onto the students and workers with the fewest resources and the least agency. In the absence of strong leadership, students and workers are being urged to make "good choices."

But what is the "good choice" for a student working at H-E-B as an essential worker to help her at-risk, out-of-work parents, and who is being asked to quarantine for 14 days before coming back to campus for a required class she needs for her major, which is only being offered in person? How is she supposed to "Protect Texas Together" when UT's regulations force her to pick either class or work? How is she supposed to balance completing her major with ensuring that her family can eat and make rent that week?

What is the "good choice" for a graduate student worker who works multiple side hustles as an essential worker because UT pays its graduate students an average of $11,000 below the living wage in Austin? If their only option for a teaching assistantship requires coming to campus, is the "good choice" to limit potential COVID-19 exposure by quitting their side hustles and praying for an extension on the eviction moratorium? Or is it to decline the TA position and lose their stipend, tuition reduction, and access to health insurance in the middle of a pandemic?

There are no "good choices" in either of these scenarios, and unfortunately, neither of them are hypothetical. The choices that UT is forcing us to make are impossible and unethical. It's particularly shameful for a university with the second largest endowment in the country and one that has, in fact, made money during this pandemic.

We have the support of 44 graduate student organizations and more than 1,400 individuals for our open letter demanding that the university protect students, workers, and community members by prioritizing health, safety, and transparent communication. We also support the Texas State Employees Union petition calling for UT System universities to move most classes online, end furloughs and layoffs, and issue hazard pay for essential workers, among other measures. Regrettably, the university's response has been limited and vague.

Today we renew our demand: No faculty, staff, or students should be forced or coerced to work in person this fall. Crucially, their decision should not adversely impact their relationship with the university, whether in terms of student or employee status, access to funding or income, or provision of health insurance.

Weathering the pandemic requires meaningful collaboration with and protections for precarious members of UT's community. Underpaid@UT believes the only way to do this is through a democratic workplace that empowers workers to make decisions without needing to choose between their health and their livelihood.

We are defined by how we act in the moments that challenge us most. Now is the time for UT's administration to decide if, when challenged, they will "Protect Texas Together" or if they will continue to treat their essential workers – graduate students, staff, and faculty – as a source of cheap, expendable labor.

Underpaid@UT is a graduate student worker advocacy group at the University of Texas-Austin.

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