As a graduate student researcher in the neuroscience PhD program at UCLA, I work hard to contribute to the University of California’s research mission. In addition to my studies, I support the efforts of my professors and contribute to published work. I strongly believe in the value of our research.
But ever since UC rolled out its new payroll system in September (UCPath), I’ve faced a new challenge: Each month, I have been paid only 48 percent of my wages. So far this has totaled an underpayment of gross wages of $8,669.67.
UC Associate Vice President of Operations Mark Cianca told The Bee, “I do want to make it really clear: Everybody gets paid.” Yet, that hasn’t been true for me or many of my colleagues. Some have lost their health insurance and been forced to accumulate credit card debt. Some have even received eviction notices.
Administrators like Cianca fail to understand that many graduate student workers, and UC workers in general, live paycheck to paycheck. Missing even one paycheck is a crisis.
When UCPath was proposed in 2011, administrators claimed it would cost $306 million and be finished by 2014. But the project has been so egregiously mismanaged that it necessitated a review by the California State Auditor, who concluded that it will cost an estimated $942 million over the course of its implementation.
The UC acknowledges that these delays are costing them. According to documents from a 2018 meeting, a single nine-month delay alone increased costs of implementation by $43.4 million due to “labor, software, financing, UCPath Center technology and reimbursed campus costs.”
With every month of delay costing roughly another $5 million, the UC decided to roll out UCPath and worry about fixing it later. Yet, after the initial test at the first campuses last year, the results were undeniable: UCPath was causing workers to go unpaid. The UC continued the rollout at more campuses anyway, and they are scheduled to roll it out at even more campuses this year—including UC Berkeley, which has the most workers.
For most employers, not paying workers on time is a form of wage theft, but the UC is exempt from the state’s strict wage theft laws. And since many workers at UC, including graduate student researchers, do not have a union, there is no internal recourse to rectify this problem.
So, the UC has chosen to place the burden of their own mistakes on the backs of its workers, effectively using them as an interest-free bank while they sort out the payroll system’s kinks.
This callous attitude compounds the problems academic workers face.
Graduate students struggle with mental health issues at a significantly higher rate than the general population. Our nation’s graduate education system piles undue levels of stress on its students, ripping away their sense of efficacy. The UC pays its graduate students $2,700 less than other competitive universities each year after accounting for cost of living.
Given the financial struggles many UC student workers already experience, financial uncertainty can be a disproportionate burden—both monetarily and mentally.
Beyond the immediate human impact, this crisis perpetuates the perception that academia is the realm of the well-to-do and that graduate school is not feasible for working class people. In a time when widening economic inequalities are finally getting their due attention, it’s immoral for the UC to perpetuate such inequality.
I came to work at UC because I believed this system was a force for good to push society forward. But having experienced — firsthand — the UC’s disregard for the economic struggles it creates within its own community, I no longer believe this.
Until the UC acknowledges the damage they’ve done and makes whole all the losses their community members have accrued — the late fees, the payday loan interest, the loss of health insurance — I will instead view the institution as one that has fallen far short of its mission.