Happy Holidays to those who celebrated last week, or continue to celebrate this week. If you haven’t heard the news, our union election will take place in just a few weeks on January 10th and 11th! If you haven’t yet, take a minute to look up where your polling place will be and what times it will be open on the days of the election. Make a plan for when you will vote and talk to your department’s organizers (find your DO here) or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions. We’re moving into the last big push for election, so if you haven’t signed the Vote Yes pledge, now is the time to do so. Signing the pledge gives NUGW organizers a running tally of how many yes votes to expect on election day and helps with GOTV (get out the vote) logistics. It’s also a way for those of us who are not able to vote in person to show our support for unionization.
The whole idea of a union is that as a community we stand up for one another and take care of each other. Care will be the theme of today’s email. We’ll be discussing the state of healthcare for graduate workers at Northwestern. While the holidays can be a time of joy and celebration, they can also be tough for many of us. Please use this email as a prompt to send some love and care to your loved ones, your friends, your classmates, and yourself.
Rising Costs, Insufficient Coverage
This week’s email was written by NUGW’s Disabilities and Chronic Illness Working Group. Of the almost 2,000 graduate workers who responded to last year’s graduate needs survey, 21% reported having a chronic illness or disability. This makes healthcare a top issue for many graduate workers. Members of our working group have sat in meetings with Northwestern admin where the contract and terms of the NU-SHIP insurance plans were being worked out. It is abundantly clear that the people making decisions about our health insurance have no idea what graduate workers experience when we try to access care or use our NU-SHIP insurance. As graduate workers, we rely on Northwestern to provide us with adequate medical insurance to cover the medications and care we need on a regular basis and to take care of us when an emergency strikes. Our current coverage leaves our bodies and our wallets vulnerable.
This September, a single graduate worker would have had to pay at least $410 for comprehensive yearlong PPO dental coverage, and $87 for yearlong vision insurance, which breaks down to at least 17% of a monthly stipend check. This year we couldn’t even put those payments on a credit card, they had to be paid directly. 1st year graduate workers didn’t even receive their first paycheck before the end of the enrollment period. Because of these costs, graduate workers regularly forgo dental and vision care, leading to potentially costly procedures down the road.
While some Northwestern academic programs cover dental and vision insurance, most do not. A union contract can raise the floor for our benefits, ensuring that Northwestern provides dental and vision coverage for all graduate workers and that departments do not have to pay out of their own budgets to provide critical coverage.
In the last five years, the out of pocket maximum in our insurance increased from $1300 to $2500. For graduate workers with disabilities or chronic illness who already deal with more expensive healthcare, a rise in the out-of-pocket maximum can directly mean a rise in healthcare costs. For many, this means paying up to $1,200 a year more for healthcare today than you would in 2017. For graduate workers whose necessary healthcare is out-of-network, this cost has no ceiling. On top of that, TGS has no specific support or resources for disabled graduate workers, leaving them paying more while having their needs basically ignored by Northwestern.
Another group that Northwestern ignores are graduate workers who are parents or caregivers. 8% of respondents to the 2022 Graduate Needs Survey identified as parents or caregivers. Workers who are parents should be able to expect their job to provide affordable healthcare for both themselves and their children. This is not the case at Northwestern. Graduate worker parents are already put into a precarious position with the meager stipend provided by Northwestern, and the University’s continued lack of any child or dependent coverage means workers who are parents must pay an additional $4,698 in annual premiums for coverage for one child and $9,396 if you need coverage for more. This means many parent workers already lose 27% of their annual total stipend before paying for or receiving any healthcare at all and are left to survive on $25,800 for the rest of the year. Other universities that have unions provide much more affordable dependent coverage for their graduate workers.
NU-SHIP deductibles, copays, and out-of-pocket maximums have consistently gone up over the past several years. Graduate workers belonging to marginalized or vulnerable groups are disproportionately affected by these rising costs and insufficient coverage. We deserve dental and vision insurance, affordable dependent coverage, and improvements to our healthcare plans. We can make that a reality through a union.
How are healthcare costs impacting graduate workers?
“Paying for dependent health care costs almost my entire stipend, and that doesn't even cover dental or vision insurance. I've had to forgo it for them, and I pay for a lot of costs, like the dentist, out of pocket (paying out of pocket is actually cheaper for me than the dental plans we're offered every 6 months). At the University of Washington, where I transferred from, I had insurance for my kids and myself -- that included dental and vision -- for under $300 per month, and that was because our union fought for us there.”
- Nikki Barry, PhD Candidate in the Learning Sciences
“I went on a medical leave of absence in 2017. Back then Northwestern didn’t support you for any amount of time. I hit the in-network out-of-pocket max and was on the hook for $10k+ for an out-of-network IOP/PHP program. I know NUGW was a big part of Northwestern starting to offer a paid medical leave of absence, but the current health insurance plan has no out-of-pocket maximum for out-of-network providers and that can be very dangerous. Luckily (keyword luck) my family supported me through my situation, but it cost us A LOT of money.”
- Anonymous Graduate Worker
“When I took a medical leave of absence in 2019, I had to prove my worthiness for an 80% stipend check while undergoing treatment that–even after insurance–still cost me thousands of dollars out-of-pocket. I’m still struggling to pay this off. I have gone deeper into debt every year, as I have to keep putting my medical costs on credit cards. Since my medical leave in 2019, NUGW successfully advocated for full, 100% stipend pay during medical leaves of absence. This is the direct result of our organizing and our solidarity. With the power of our union behind us, we can and will have a say over our healthcare when we get to the bargaining table.“
- Ally Reith, PhD Student in the Learning Sciences
“My department is one of the many social science and humanities departments in buildings that are so far from ADA accessible it would be laughable if it weren’t so terrible. Winding and narrow stairways. No elevators. Student offices three floors above the nearest bathroom. Anyone with a physical disability or in a wheelchair basically has no access to most spaces in our department.“
- Anonymous Graduate Worker
How can a union help secure comprehensive healthcare?
Graduate unions across the country have had tremendous success securing not only dental and vision coverage, but improvements to healthcare coverage overall:
- Columbia graduate workers secured university coverage for 75% of dental insurance premiums and a $300,000 fund to help students with out of pocket medical expenses.
- Georgetown graduate workers won full coverage for their dental insurance and protections against increases in premiums and out of pocket maximums.
- NYU graduate workers also won full coverage for their dental insurance and a $300,000 fund to cover out of pocket expenses to increase to $700,000 by 2025.
Without a union, Northwestern simply has no incentive to make these types of improvements to our healthcare coverage. With a union, we will have the power to bring these changes to Northwestern and make real, tangible improvements to our healthcare coverage.
Have a question about unionization?
Have questions about unionization or NUGW-UE? Explore answers to common questions on our website’s FAQ page. You can also submit questions to the form below and a member of NUGW will follow-up with you directly.
The NUGW Disability and Chronic Illness Working Group
Learn more about NUGW’s other working groups at https://nugradworkers.org/get-involved-2/join-a-working-group/