Grad union demands missing back pay from NYU admin

Thousands of graduate student workers have not received outstanding back payments from NYU despite a guarantee included in the union’s May 2021 contract.

Students+march+in+line+on+the+white+concrete+sidewalk+on+the+south+side+of+West+Fourth+Street+in+front+of+the+red+Bobst+library+building+passing+by+a+small+green+tree+and+a+red+street+sign.+Some+of+the+students+hold+posters+in+support+of+the+Graduate+Student+Organizing+Committee.

Alexandra Chan

The NYU graduate student union’s April 2021 picket line in front of Bobst Library. (Staff Photo by Alexandra Chan)

Nicole Lu, Contributing Writer

NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee sent an open letter to Provost Katherine Fleming in mid-February demanding the university administration disburse outstanding back pay and bonuses to graduate student workers. According to the letter, thousands of student workers have not received payments dating as far back as fall 2020, despite stipulations in the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the university.

In the letter signed by nearly 200 union members, GSOC called on the administration to distribute payments owed to student workers by the end of the 2021-22 academic year, provide a timeline for their disbursal and organize a meeting between the union’s elected representatives and the administration.

“Since late summer 2021, university representatives have repeatedly delayed and/or mismanaged these payments, often without explanation,” the letter reads. “After months of regular meetings, emails, and even a grievance filed by the union, NYU has refused even to give an estimated timeline of planned payments.”

The open letter comes after GSOC and the NYU administration agreed on a contract in May 2021. The union went on strike for three weeks starting April 26, 2021, before the members reached a tentative agreement with the university on May 15. The strike gained the support of national and local politicians, such as Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders and former New York City mayoral candidate Dianne Morales, as well as more than 40 university organizations and roughly 2,700 individual signatures.

In the ratified contract, NYU committed to delivering retroactive wages, vacation pay for hourly workers and service bonuses for salaried semester-based employees. But many graduate student workers, including Madeline Gunderson, who worked under the Graduate School of Arts and Science, have yet to receive payment for their work.

Gunderson graduated in December 2020 and said that she called PeopleLink — NYU’s center for human resources-related inquiries and services — on Feb. 16 to ask about the status of her outstanding payment. She received a response to her case on March 4, but has yet to receive a deposit.

“[The representative] was trying to comfort me like I wasn’t alone, but it was just horrible because hundreds of us still haven’t been paid,” Gunderson said. “It’s frustrating, because they owe me $600. For me, it was frustrating to not have that extra cash right after graduation. It makes a difference.”

Another graduate worker who requested to remain anonymous said that they contacted PeopleSync, NYU’s system for clocking in and requesting time off, about an issue similar to Gunderson. They said that during the Aug. 30, 2021, to Sept. 12, 2021, payroll cycle, they worked around 40 total hours. However, as of March 5, they were never paid by NYU.

“There’s no communication,” the graduate worker said. “It’s all about money. If the students are here and they want to be a part of the university and they’re giving back to the university, pay them. Why would I want to work if I am not getting paid?”

Many international graduate workers said they rely on student work since it provides the only income they can secure in the United States. Most international students depend on F-1 visas to study abroad, which does not allow off-campus employment unless they file for Curricular Practical Training, an authorization for college students’ short-term employment. An international graduate student who asked to remain anonymous said the application process is difficult and lengthy.

“Before the international office can even do something about it, it’s up to the departments to have CPT in the graduate student’s handbook,” the graduate student said. “So until it’s in the handbook, there is basically nothing the international office can do about it. There is no practical training or no internship to justify that work experience, so you cannot get that special work experience.”

Another international graduate student worker said that, due to the payment inconsistencies, international students have struggled to meet the costs of living in New York City while facing pandemic-imposed challenges.

“A lot of international students don’t want to ask their parents for money,” another anonymous international graduate worker said. “It’s a huge currency difference. And it’s a lot of money for monthly costs when we compare it to our national currency.”

In response to GSOC’s requests, NYU spokesperson John Beckman said the university is committed to paying graduate workers the money they are owed. He said the GSOC contract includes new benefits and categories not in the previous collective bargaining agreement, and noted how the university is adding the retroactive payments into its payroll system for the first time. 

“Retroactive pay for accrued but unused vacation time, however, is a new feature of the new contract, and we have to put in place processes to ensure that everyone is paid properly — neither underpaid or overpaid,” Beckman wrote in a statement to WSN. “We expect to have that issue resolved before the end of the semester.”

The Student Government Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling on the NYU administration to recognize the outstanding payments of graduate students at its most recent meeting of the semester on March 2.

Contact Nicole Lu at [email protected]