On April 12, 2021 the University of Pennsylvania announced the opening of a COVID-19 vaccine clinic on campus. According to an email sent to graduate and professional students, the university-run clinic would begin to serve eligible 1c populations on April 14. Those eligible for vaccination at the University site in category 1c include part- and full-time faculty, staff, postdocs, retired and emeritus faculty, temporary workers, third-party workers, and those living in on-campus housing currently eligible for Penn Cares testing. Where does this leave graduate instructors and research and teaching assistants? Although the City of Philadelphia broadly includes “higher education staff” in the 1c eligibility cohort, the University of Pennsylvania’s definition of eligibility departs from the City’s by excluding graduate scholars and workers from its definition of employed staff. In doing so, Penn dismisses the essential labor that we perform for the university.
Graduate students are workers. As members of GET-UP (Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania), we believe graduate students provide vital revenue generating labor for the university, including (but not limited to) teaching, research, grading, laboratory maintenance and supervision, and advising. This work is also performed by the staff, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty included in the University’s 1c designation—indeed, it is precisely what qualifies them. Under Penn's plans, a professor recording lectures from home is eligible for a vaccine, but that professor's teaching assistants leading recitation sections are not. So why this distinction?
Last year, eight members from GET-UP authored a column in the Daily Pennsylvanian addressing the reasons why separating graduate students from the category of an employee mattered in the context of Penn's inadequate initial response to the pandemic. As the authors noted, this distinction limits our access to equitable funding, healthcare, and workplace democracy. It also places significant constraints on international students’ visa statuses, which are contingent on enrollment and employment. One year later, graduate and professional students are still not receiving proper support from the university. For example, instead of offering universal one-year funding extensions in recognition of the serious disruptions to academic progress, Penn announced a competitive campus-wide fellowship that will reward only a select few in later stages of research.
Penn’s phased approach to campus-wide vaccination reflects the larger tendency to defer graduate students’ fair access to university resources during the pandemic. Previous messaging from the university indicated that it would prioritize vaccinations by “age and occupational risk.” But, the ages of graduate students vary widely. Some are older than faculty, staff, and postdocs. We are also aware that graduate students based in shared laboratory settings have been required to perform in-person work, which qualifies as occupational risk. Penn’s vaccination plan did not explicitly address any of these specificities. Although the vaccine is becoming increasingly available after President Biden expanded eligibility to all adults beginning April 19, we are nonetheless concerned about our ongoing exclusion from the University’s category of employee and the consequences it will hold for future decisions about access to healthcare, funding, and other protections.
As graduate students organizing with GET-UP, we believe that representation through a union and legal recognition as employed workers at Penn will allow us to better participate in truly democratic, campus-wide dialogues about the importance of our labor. After observing how the University ranked access to vaccinations exclusively based on our status as “students,” and not as “workers,” we think that a union is more necessary than ever to advocate for our health, safety, and futures.
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