COLA and COVID-19: COLA’s Continued Importance in the age of a Global Pandemic

Since the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt, it has overtaken headlines everywhere. However, it is important to remember that the pandemic is not the only problem facing society. Many of the problems from before the virus’s escalation continue to exist and have been exacerbated by the additional challenges that a global health crisis poses. Major victims of these additional challenges are the University of California graduate teaching assistants and graduate student instructors. As the UC system transitions to online classes, TA’s and GSI’s need to assist professors in using technology, restructuring the curriculum, and supporting their students through the unique challenges of remote learning that the COVID-19 crisis brings. Yet, despite their ever-increasing necessity in maintaining undergraduate education quality, TAs and GSIs continue to be underpaid, threatening their livelihoods and the undergraduates that rely on them. As graduate workers’ living conditions increasingly affect undergraduates’ learning, it is more imperative than ever that undergraduates support their TAs and the Cost-of-Living Adjustment movement.

Even now, the COLA movement remains key to ensuring that TAs and GSIs receive fair pay and can support themselves and their families. As housing costs have skyrocketed across California, graduate workers at every single UC campus are now rent-burdened, which means they spend at least 30 percent of their take-home pay on rent. When people need to use 30 percent or more of their incomes for their rents, they have less money for basic needs and often have to rely on social safety nets such as food stamps. Thus, without COLA, graduate students remain at high risk of housing insecurity and will struggle to make ends meet, which is worrisome for several reasons. To properly socially distance and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, graduate workers need access to proper housing. Moreover, as the pandemic has moved classes online, graduate workers’ housing conditions have become imperative to their teaching. After all, if TAs’ homes cannot function as workspaces or their salaries do not cover the cost of high-speed internet, they will not be able to teach and support undergraduates. Consequently, COLA has become even more necessary, not only for graduate workers’ livelihoods but also for undergraduate education.

As courses transition from in-person to online, TAs are instrumental in keeping courses functional and effective, making COLA even more relevant to undergraduate education. After all, in the UC system, TAs engage with undergraduates one-on-one, often acting as the first point of contact by doing the grading and supporting students through assignments. Essentially, graduate workers act as the backbone of undergraduate education, doing the work necessary to implement professors’ visions for their courses. Consequently, as COVID-19 brings new challenges for students, TAs face the burden of adapting to the new challenges remote learning brings. 

For example, Robert Edwards, a fourth-year graduate student and TA for Sixth College’s Culture, Art, and Technology writing course, explained that since many of his students are international students, they struggle to attend his discussion sections.

“Professors have just been pre-recording lectures but it’s my job, as the TA, to hold live sections…[and] when students cannot attend section, it is my job to make sure they know what they need to know…” he said.

Still, it is difficult for Edwards to afford his housing, make ends meet, and maintain access to technology like high-speed internet because he spends about 60 percent of his income on rent alone. Even though Edwards has been making it work, he worries about his ability to continue to do so, especially since he has been homeless in the past. Edwards’ economic situation is not unique among graduate TAs and GSIs at the various UC campuses. Clearly, graduate workers’ conditions remain precarious and even though undergraduates need their TAs, graduate workers’ incomes continue to shortchange TAs’ abilities to support students.

While TAs have been at high-risk of housing insecurity for years now, the COVID pandemic has increased costs and made their living conditions even more tenuous. At this time, TAs face additional pressures because many have lost the side-jobs they used to supplement their incomes due to rising unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, TAs, many of whom already struggled to pay rent for their homes, are at further risk of losing them altogether. Moreover, even though graduate workers’ income sources have decreased, the burden put on their incomes has increased because they now need access to private workspaces, high-speed internet, and other technological necessities. Therefore, the fact that TAs’ salaries are insufficient in covering their rents now restricts their abilities to teach remotely and thus, compromises the quality of undergraduates’ learning. Considering COLA would decrease the proportion of TAs’ salaries going to rent, it would stabilize their living conditions more and as a consequence, improve undergraduate learning conditions.

Now, while the UC system has made some changes to help TAs at this time, it has yet to meet graduate workers’ demands enough to alleviate concerns. For example, the UC system has extended healthcare coverage for the 80 plus fired strikers and on March 30, the system offered fired workers the option to rejoin as UC employees. While the UC system’s extension of healthcare coverage helps protect striking workers, it only temporarily resolves a much deeper problem. After all, despite the necessity of their labor to the functioning of the UC education system, the system fails to sustain TAs basic needs. 

Moreover, while the offers to reinstate striking TAs allow graduate workers to regain employment and income, their acceptance of the offer prevents them from striking. The fact that the UC system is only offering jobs if TAs refuse to strike arguably takes advantage of their vulnerability, which is exacerbated by the complications the COVID-19 threat has created, to prevent them from continuing to fight for fair pay. Accordingly, TAs remain at risk and the UC system’s response may further reduce graduate workers’ leverage, threatening their ability to earn adequate wages.

TAs continue to be instrumental to the success of undergraduates and are imperative to undergraduates’ ability to complete their degrees during an on-going global pandemic. Yet, graduate workers continue to be underpaid and the poverty that entails creates many serious consequences for our TAs other than those discussed in this article. These issues hurting our TAs, clearly impact their ability to teach us. Fortunately, we can help alleviate some of these problems by supporting our TAs in their fight for COLA. After all, if undergraduates stop caring about COLA, we put our TAs at risk. Moreover, as TAs’ living conditions become undergraduates’ learning conditions, a lack of COLA puts our education at risk. To help out, we can support graduate students’ efforts to make their strike union sponsored and take a look at Strike University, which discusses larger-level issues with universities and acts as a space for engagement and activism.

Now more than ever, we need to step up for COLA so our graduate workers can keep stepping up for us.

Artwork by UCSD Guardian Art Editor Anthony Tran.

This article was updated at 6:21PM on April 7, 2020 to add information about how students could support the COLA movement.