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NMU graduate students begin petition for health insurance

MARQUETTE — A group of graduate assistants at Northern Michigan University has started a petition to persuade NMU to provide health insurance as part of their contract.

“We created this petition to bring awareness to the community and university stakeholders about challenges that graduate students employed by Northern Michigan University are facing,” said Emily Griffith, a second-year biology master’s candidate/ graduate assistant and graduate student representative for the biology department, in an email.

The issue is detailed at www.nonmu.org, with the petition at change.org/graduatenmu.

NMU currently does not offer health insurance to its graduate employees, Griffith said, and pays graduates $9,300 annually to teach, perform administrative duties or take on other roles that keep the university operational.

“Graduate students at Northern have advocated for change for a long time, but in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of health insurance and low compensation provided to us by our employer is an issue that has become paramount in our lives,” Griffith said. “We don’t believe that it’s right that individuals whose work directly generates revenue for the university should be told that their best option for health care is Medicaid, which not all graduate employees qualify for.”

Many graduate employees, she said, have to take second or third jobs just to make ends meet.

“For some, an unexpected hospital bill as a result of a COVID-19 infection could cause serious financial hardship, and since the university plans on holding face-to-face courses this semester, many of which will be taught by graduate employees, we’re at risk of getting infected while doing our jobs,” said Griffith, who every week this semester will prepare for and teach four discussion sections of 24 to 25 students each.

She said in late July, NMU offered to cover costs of health care received at the Vielmetti Health Center.

However, students behind the petition believe this isn’t adequate, Griffith said, since the health center would likely have to refer them to the emergency department at UP Health System if they needed treatment in a life-threatening situation.

“By adequately compensating their graduate employees, and providing comprehensive health care, Northern is able to benefit everyone at the university, especially the students that we teach and mentor,” Griffith said. “The changes we advocate for would also help the university to attract more graduate students to their program, since many other universities already offer health insurance and stipends far above what Northern offers.

“All in all, we’re trying to persuade Northern that the changes we’re asking for aren’t just the right thing to do, they’re the best thing to do.”

Lisa Schade Eckert, NMU dean of graduate studies and research, said in an email that graduate studies and research staff as well as the NMU faculty graduate program directors in various disciplines held orientation sessions with graduate assistants last week to advise them as they were to begin the fall semester.

“We work collaboratively to maintain open communications and are, as always, committed to providing advanced academic and research opportunities to support all graduate students as they pursue their academic and professional goals,” Eckert said.

She stressed that NMU is not alone in this situation.

“Like universities across the nation, we seek to provide the best academic experience for students,” she said. “I, along with the staff in graduate studies and research, remain focused on the academic success of all 635 graduate students at NMU. We continue to work diligently to provide the resources available to support them in various contexts and disciplines.”

NMU graduate assistant Matthew Sirk also has an opinion on the matter.

“As a graduate assistant in the School of Health and Human Performance, human well-being is an integral part of our everyday life,” he said in an email. “With the current pandemic, human health seems to play an even more pivotal role in how we work, play and spend our leisure time.

“When preparing to come back to campus for the fall semester, Northern’s administration had to deal with these facets of our lives and how COVID will change them. Not only did they have to consider these facets of everyday life, but they also had to consider how every person’s life is a little different.”

Sirk said that considering the circumstances, he believes NMU has done an “excellent job” in preparing for the fall semester.

“University employees have been working tirelessly to make everything work as flawlessly and safe as possible,” Sirk said. “We often find mistakes in decisions and protocols implemented after the fact, but I do believe that where we currently stand, Northern is making the best decisions it can for its campus community.”

Despite “the tireless effort from the staff and administration,” he said a group of graduate assistants is demanding campus-provided health care coverage, hazard pay and other perks.

Sirk said that while he understands their position, all GAs have the ability to move their classes online if need be, and are provided personal protection equipment, health care and other items.

“As a GA, it is well understood that you don’t get the same benefits as a full-time employee before you start your assignment,” Sirk said. “That being said, if GAs don’t feel that the compensation is sufficient enough, it’s in their right to find another school or job that better fits their needs.

“Personally, I am extremely thankful for the opportunity Northern has given me, and if I thought there was a better place to be, I wouldn’t be here.”

John Whitinger recently earned his master’s degree at NMU and is working toward his Ph.D. in earth and ecosystem science at Central Michigan University.

Whitinger said he understands the grad students’ frustration but believes the rhetoric, such as “NMU sucks” on Facebook, should be toned down.

That phrase, he noted, doesn’t initiate a conversation that can come to a compromise.

“I think by saying that you’re encouraging the fight that who can yell louder,” Whitinger said in a telephone interview.

He acknowledged that as an NMU grad student, a lack of health insurance was a problem, and these students perform a lot of work that went into keeping labs and classes afloat without a lot of recognition.

However, he stressed there is “too much hostility” in the current debate, and would prefer a compromise be created to “come to a place of understanding instead of hate.”

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