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Pay grade: Underpaid TAs highlight wage differences, financial struggles

Josh Chang | Staff Photographer

Josh Stangle, a TA in the math department, lectures. Stangle and other TA's have to deal with low wages and high living expenses.

Teaching Assistants make up a third of Syracuse University’s full-time teaching staff.

When the Graduate Student Organization, which represents the interests of TAs and graduate students, meets with the university’s administration, its members are treated like colleagues.

But even though they are treated as colleagues, TAs are not paid as such. In a survey that GSO sent out to 1,405 graduate students, the results showed that 59 percent of TAs are paid below the living wage. In the survey, GSO asked students to provide their contract pay rate, contract length and assistantship type. It also requested they list basic, day-to-day expenses, benefits they may receive, childcare issues and several other costs.

The City of Syracuse outlines the living wage level as $19,390, but the GSO computed the actual average living wage as $19,350.

TAs at SU have an average living wage level of $17,070.63, but TAs in some departments, such as the School of Visual and Performing Arts, can make as little as $12,155 for a full, 20-hour per week contract.

At the Jan. 15 University Senate meeting, the Budget Committee recommended that the minimum wage level for TAs should be $13,000. The recommendation came in response to a report the GSO issued to the committee in October. In the report, the GSO argued that the minimum wage level should be raised to the average wage level in the City of Syracuse.

Since then, GSO President Patrick Neary said the organization has had successful discussions with the administration about the logistics of putting the plan into place. Both parties have considered raising TA wages by increments in the course of three or four years as one possible plan, Neary said.

“They’ve acknowledged that this is something that hasn’t been looked at in a long time,” he said. “They have readily admitted that the $12,155 really is a lot lower than what it should be.”

Josh Stangle, a TA in the math department, said he feels GSO’s efforts to increase living wages are a “good start.” He added that TAs are qualified employees and that the position is a full-time job, which merits increased wages.

“If TAs teach as many courses university-wide as they do in the math department, there is no reason that they should be making so little that they can’t live comfortably,” Stangle said. “I think we should be making significantly more than many of us are.”

Even across departments, the gap in wages is identifiable. Neary, who is a TA in the math department, said he is paid approximately $19,500, while both the philosophy and English departments are paid as little as $15,500.

Although TA wages increase a small amount every year in response to inflation, Neary said they haven’t increased substantially within the last decade.

Before the GSO sent out its survey last year, GSO Comptroller Patrick Dawes said the issue of underpaid TAs did not receive enough attention. When there was no survey data to consult, Dawes said, it was difficult to identify the concrete scale and parameters of the needs of TAs.

Their financial struggles compound the stressors felt from balancing a full-time TA position and their own academics, said Dawes, who is also a science education TA.

“They try to juggle their responsibilities with their departments, while making progress toward a degree, in addition to the everyday stuff that life presents us with,” he said.

For up to five fully funded years, the university provides TAs with 9-month contracts, where the TAs must work between five, 15 and 20 hours per week. In most colleges, the contracts are salary-based and TAs are given yearly wages that are split into pay periods. Like most salaried positions, TAs are not paid when they work overtime.

Some colleges on campus, including the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the University of Visual and Performing Arts, have moved to using an hourly pay rate, but Neary said the GSO isn’t in full support of those systems. He said he is concerned that an hourly pay rate system might put graduate students at risk of losing benefits, including access to SU’s faculty health care program.

Health care benefits are one of the few luxuries TAs are afforded by the university. There isn’t any on-campus housing for graduate students. Many of them are forced to live in the projects downtown, the Westcott neighborhood or as far away as Fayetteville. The apartment complexes near campus are often out of the prices range of a graduate student, Neary said.

Since most graduate students are in their mid to late twenties, they could have children, which results in day care expenses, in addition to the high price of gas, food and housing, Neary said.

When searching for housing, TAs might also not know if their contract is being renewed for the following year, Neary said. Sometimes departments give out more admittance letters than the number of TA positions that are available, he said. This means that TAs may not hear that their contract isn’t being renewed until August, Neary said, which gives them as little as two weeks to find another position.

It has been five years since Neary came to GSO, but he still remembers how surprised he was when he first learned of the disparity in wages throughout the TA program.

“I remember that first year meeting with people from other departments and realizing the incredible differences in pay across the university,” Neary said. “That really drove me to be more passionate about this.”

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