Berkeley's $5M Glitch

Arbitrator says UC Berkeley owes its computer science TAs, including many undergraduates, some $5 million in missed pay and benefits.

January 16, 2020
 
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The University of California, Berkeley, must pay $5 million to teaching assistants it improperly denied tuition remission and other benefits, an arbitrator said this week after reviewing a union grievance.

Berkeley says it’s disappointed with the decision but that it will cooperate.

The case concerns about 1,000 students, including many undergraduate teaching assistants in the department of electrical engineering and computer science. Enrollment in these kinds of courses has swelled nationally in recent years, contributing to a major computer science faculty shortage. At Berkeley, for instance, an introductory computer science course now attracts 1,800 students, compared to about half that in 2014. Berkeley, which also has too few graduate student instructors to meet that need, has responded by appointing more and more undergraduate TAs to lead discussion sections and perform other teaching-related tasks.

That’s not necessarily a problem for the United Auto Workers-affiliated student employees' union, as these TAs are covered by the contract and receive pay of around $30 an hour, depending on appointment type, not considering tuition remission. But the union says that the university is putting far too many students on eight-hour appointments, which do not qualify them for tuition remission, and too few on 10-hour appointments, which do qualify them for a big break on tuition and childcare benefits. Graduate students on these 10-hour appointments are also entitled to health-care benefits.

In negotiating the 10-hour threshold for tuition remission during contract negotiations, the union says it understood that eight-hour appointments would be used only sparingly. And they were used that way for about a decade. Since 2015, however, non-remission-eligible appointments have surged from about 2 percent of assistantships to 12 percent.

The allegation here is that Berkeley is deliberately trying to keep students under the 10-hour threshold to avoid having to remit their tuition, thereby dramatically decreasing their potential compensation. It’s akin to employees accusing an employer of keeping them just below the threshold of full-time work in order to avoid having to give them full-time benefits.

Nathan Kenshur, an undergraduate math tutor and head steward for the union, said Wednesday that the electrical engineering and computer science department's practice now is to employ hundreds of workers per semester as eight-hour TAs, in "a transparent attempt to dodge the contractually negotiated tuition benefit."

Not everyone who's served as an undergraduate TA in the department thought their terms were unfair. Barak Gila, who has since graduated, held that position in 2015 and 2016. He taught discussion sections, wrote and graded midterms, helped monitor online discussions, and, as head TA in his final semester, helped lead the TA program. He did receive tuition remission.

In Gila's experience, pay was good, and even if it hadn't been, he said, “undergrads were freely choosing to accept jobs.”

"I’m not sure why it's illegal for professors to choose to hire more eight-hour TAs, rather than cut their class sizes almost in half," Gila added. By that, he meant that departments with given budgets for a course may either hire more TAs on smaller appointments and offer more sections, or have bigger sections with fewer TAs on 10- to 20-hour appointments.

The arbitrator’s decision was not immediately made public. Information that the department shared at a town hall around 2016 show that undergraduate TAs on eight-hour appointments cost $4,000 per term, while 10-hour appointees cost $11,000. In-state tuition remission accounts for most of the difference between the two figures. 


Kenshur said he understands that some TAs don’t feel the grievance was necessary, but that this is about even more than the 1,000 students affected.

“Undermining the collectively bargained labor contract between student workers and the university threatens the benefits and rights of every worker on this campus,” he said. The TA practice could have spread and “eroded tuition waiver rights across the board.”

Jobs, Kenshur noted, “can still be exploitative even if workers are willing to do them.”

Janet Gilmore, a university spokesperson, said the university and the department “believed that appointments should be kept at 20 percent,” or eight hours per week or less, “in order not to interfere with student academic performance.”

The union, of course, argued that the university's reasoning was mostly financial, not pedagogical. And the arbitrator agreed with the union, directing the electrical engineering and computer science department to “cease and desist making both graduate and undergraduate appointments below 25 percent,” or the 10 hour-per-week, benefits-eligible level.

Berkeley is now required to provide retroactive fee remission benefits to students who were not provided them around the time the grievance was filed, in 2017, Gilmore said.

The union has said that each affected student who taught in the department in 2017 or later is entitled to $7,500 per term taught. The university, however, says that it’s not yet clear how many students will get how much.

“Identifying which group of students qualify for lost compensation, which could include partial fee remission, childcare assistance and health benefits, will take some time,” Gilmore said.

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