Opinions, Op-Ed

Boston College Must Provide Better Health Care Benefits For Its Graduate Student Workers

This semester the Boston College Graduate Employees Union launched a petition demanding better health care. Boston College provides woefully inadequate health care for its graduate workers, and the recent change in coverage is the latest example of the administration’s needless austerity. Given the administration’s decision to remove the mask mandate despite record cases of COVID-19 on campus this semester, health care is more important than ever to us as graduate workers. We are on the front lines of research and in-person instruction.

As a master’s candidate, I am enrolled in three courses this semester while teaching two sections of a foreign language course. I am the primary instructor for 38 undergraduates, and my take-home pay is around $17,000 a year. Apart from the already meager base pay, a significant portion of my income goes to health care premiums. I pay over $3,500 a year to enroll in the University’s health care plan, which does not even include dental or vision coverage. 

BC relies on overworked, underpaid graduate workers to keep the school running. The University likes to pretend that we are just students, not employees, but we take on nearly identical instructional duties as many faculty. Our W-2s list our employer as “The Trustees of Boston College.” Graduate workers like me teach dozens of core classes such as foreign languages and the first-year writing seminar, classes that all undergraduates are required to take. We are full-on instructors––drafting lesson plans, lecturing three days a week, and grading every student’s work. 

Our salaries don’t even match the University’s own cost of living estimates. The BC administration claims that a graduate student living in Boston for nine months, not even a full calendar year, will pay over $22,000. This outdated estimate is still thousands of dollars more than the current pay and benefits of many graduate workers. 

How does the University expect us to make up the difference? Even if I wanted to pick up a part-time job, there aren’t enough hours in the week. My colleagues have tried to start weekend jobs, often in retail or bartending, but within a month every one of them realizes that it just isn’t manageable. 

Master’s student workers didn’t always have to pay such absurd premiums that start at $1,550 for the first semester and jump to $1,985 in the second semester. In 2015, the University rescinded financial support for masters’ students’ health insurance. While neighboring institutions––from MIT to Northeastern––offer more robust coverage with far less out of pocket costs to graduate workers, BC continues to chip away at our health coverage. 

In talking to other graduate workers, I learned that the University previously proposed making Ph.D. graduate workers pay for health care after the first five years of a program, a timespan which the University knows is shorter than what many doctoral candidates require to complete their degree. In 2018 the University made a similar move targeting teaching graduate workers in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development. In both cases, the administration only reversed course after pressure from graduate workers.

In 2021, the University abruptly switched providers from Blue Cross Blue Shield to UnitedHealthcare, a decision made with no input from graduate workers, which left us with even worse coverage. Overnight, thousands of graduate workers learned that some of their longtime doctors, therapists, and prescription drugs were no longer in-network, forcing us to either forgo care or pay hand over fist to continue treatment. 

I honestly don’t know if the BC administration understands the life of a graduate worker. It’s possible the University thinks we’re all debt-free and still living on our parents’ insurance. Maybe it thinks you can find an apartment in Boston for $500 a month. Maybe it thinks dental care and prescription glasses are a luxury. (Although, the University administration’s health care plan somehow gives them generous dental and vision coverage). Regardless, the University will keep cutting our pay and benefits if we don’t fight. That’s why I’m part of the graduate worker’s union. That’s why workers in dozens of departments are standing up to demand full coverage, including dental and vision, with no out-of-pocket costs. We all want a healthier BC, and I hope you do too. 

February 22, 2022
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