Members of the UC Student-Workers Union and the UC San Diego Labor Commission held a sit-in on Feb. 1 in solidarity with ethnic studies graduate student Krys Mendez, who was terminated from his position as a teaching assistant for the Warren College Writing Program in Sept. due to his ongoing multiple sclerosis. Mendez is currently engaged in a dispute over reasonable accommodations for his medical condition, and the demonstration culminated in the participants sitting in the lobby as he met with the DisAbility Counseling and Consulting office to discuss these issues.
Mendez has been living with MS, an incurable condition that compromises his central nervous system, for 11 years. He relies on six different medications to treat it.
“One of my medications costs $60,000 a year,” Mendez told the UCSD Guardian. “So, for me to go without insurance could be disastrous.”
Mendez is largely dependent on his employment status for student health insurance. Losing his position from the writing program means he loses a secure route of accessing health insurance.
“I applied for the writing program and I got it,” Mendez said, “but when I asked for accommodations, that’s when this whole process started.”
After being offered the position for the 2018-2019 school year in May of 2018, Mendez was referred to the DCC by the Office for Students with Disabilities to discuss reasonable accommodations for his medical condition. He received an email in July from DCC Disability Management Counselor Jeanette Richards, explaining what would happen if no reasonable accommodations were available in the position he was offered.
“If no reasonable accommodations exist that would allow you to perform the essential functions of the TA position we would then look at reassignment,” Richards wrote to Mendez. “Reassignment as an accommodation occurs when you cannot be accommodated in the position you have been hired from and there is an open vacant position for which you meet the minimum qualifications, can perform with or without accommodation, and is not a promotion.”
Mendez’s specialists filled out paperwork provided by the DCC to verify his medical condition in order for the office to assess the situation.
On Sept. 6, Mendez received an email from the DCC that they had deemed him medically unable to work as a TA based on the information they received, and he was subsequently“unassigned” from his TA position with the Warren Writing Program, two weeks before the start of Fall Quarter.
“I followed the recommendations that I was given and this still happened,” Mendez said to the Guardian. “For the four and a half years I’ve been here, I’ve had [MS]. Even my graduate writing program application indicated that.”
A week later, Mendez filed a grievance with Labor Relations. Citing violations of UAW Agreement articles regarding appointment security, the grievance asserts that Mendez was not provided with reasonable accommodations for his medical condition. At the first grievance meeting, the DCC argued that the process for finding reasonable accommodations was still ongoing.
A change.org petition was launched in response to Mendez’s termination, and a letter requesting funding to offer him a position was signed by the graduate students in Mendez’s ethnic studies program. Brad Werner, professor of environmental physics and faculty affiliate in ethnic studies, also sent a letter on Mendez’s’ behalf to the Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion on Jan. 7.
“Krys has not received an accommodation for the remainder of the year and, as of this writing, might lose their student health insurance and a salary for winter quarter,” Werner’s letter reads. “In my view, Krys’ situation constitutes a clear case of inequity and a failure to provide an inclusive environment for a student with a disability.”
While the dispute with the DCC has played out, Mendez has been working as a 25-percent reader position for HIEU 102, which was a job created for him by a faculty member with extra research funding and is independent from the DCC. According to Mendez, the readership was the result of letters of support from many members of his department
“I just feel like I’m still unsettled by all this,” Mendez told the Guardian. “I’ve been living quarter to quarter. I have no idea whether I’m going to have insurance in six weeks.”
UAW Local 2865 Head Steward John Saraccino and bargaining team member Angela Berti accompanied Mendez during the discussion on Feb. 1. After the discussion, they addressed the group that came out in support.
“The labor relation’s position and the DCC’s position is that they have a legal obligation to accommodate for existing positions,” Saraccino said. “However, they feel that they do not have an obligation to invent jobs. In Kyrs’ case, they feel that they are not obligated to provide any security for him.”
“They feel like they’re legally obligated to try to give you some kind of accommodation, but if, at the end of the day, it doesn’t work out, then that’s just too bad and they’ve done all they can,” Berti said. “This is not at all satisfying. If the DCC is saying they’re doing all that they can … then we look at what the next level up is.”
“Obviously, this is an ongoing fight,” Mendez said to the solidarity group that followed him to the office, “but to see that disability is back on the agenda, I think in and of itself is already a victory.”
Mendez told the Guardian that he is partly relieved by the momentum on campus, especially about the larger issue of how to deal with disability in hiring practices.
The Guardian reached out to the DCC office for comment. In response, Strategic Marketing and Communications sent a statement on behalf of the campus.
“While we cannot comment on individual personnel matters, [UCSD] is committed to providing reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities as required by law,” the statement reads.
Arbitrations between the union and Labor Relations are currently being scheduled to meet the availability of all parties involved. Labor Relations Advocate Nooria Faizi wrote in October that the University intends to challenge the arbitrability of the case for “procedural ineligibility.”
photo by James Song