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Graduate students are asking the university to commit to a $15/hour minimum wage. (Getty Images)

Members of the Graduates United of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (GUM-KC) held a rally on Monday, March 7, to protest against the wages the university pays to graduate teaching assistant workers.

“Treatment of the lowest of us is just a reflection of the treatment of the highest of us,” said Ely Fair, a graduate economics student and Ph.D. candidate. “If we don’t have fairness at the bottom, we’re never going to have fairness at the top.”

GUM-KC specifically called for an end to low wages on campus. The organization is asking for hourly pay comparable to Gov. Mike Parson’s proposal of a $15-per-hour minimum wage for state employees.

According to GUM-KC, the university is legally exempt from the state minimum wage requirements, making graduate and undergraduate workers some of the lowest paid employees in Missouri.

“I am eager to address the concerns that have been raised by the group, Graduates United of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and also dispel some misinformation that is circulating regarding compensation for graduate student work,” said UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal. 

Agrawal claims that in the 2021 fiscal year the minimum campus assistantship stipend was set at $15/hour, and pay for graduate teaching assistants, graduate research assistants and graduate assistants is currently meeting that standard.

“I consider the work done by graduate students in academic appointments to be vital to the university, and to the researchers and undergraduates they support,” Agrawal said. 

Graduate teaching assistants, on average, will gross $12,000 annually. GUM-KC hopes to raise this number closer to $18,000 for half-time employment, a figure closer to what their peers make at the University of Missouri-Columbia. 

“Our work is not just necessary for our careers, but also necessary for the university,” said Bandon Decker, a PhD student. “A large portion of classes can’t be taught without teaching assistants.” 

Due to the nature of academic visas, international student workers face additional restrictions regarding where and how long they can work. International students by law are not allowed to work more than 20 hours per week, and are not legally allowed to find employment outside of the campus. 

Deepak Deo, an international graduate teaching assistant in the physics and astronomy department, has been working at the university for three and a half years. After paying for his rent and other expenses, Deo is saving less than $300 dollars a month. He has also not been able to afford a trip to his home country, India, during that time.

“It affects all the other experiences in life you would like to have,” said Deo. “We are not expecting a lavish life, just a reasonable one.” 

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