UT-Austin teaching assistants lack PPE, hazard pay

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Photo Credit: Sylvia Asuncion-Crabb | Daily Texan Staff

Government graduate student Tarek Zaher, a TA for two in-person classes, said he cleans desks and surfaces in his classroom with wipes the University left in classrooms at the beginning of the pandemic, but no supplies have been directly provided to him. 

“There’s hand sanitizer in the hallways, but they haven’t given me specific supplies,” Zaher said. “I bring my own mask.” 

Zaher is one of multiple teaching assistants who have said they have faced new challenges during the fall semester, including not receiving notifications about students exposed to COVID-19 or any protective equipment from the University. 

The University said it would provide recommended protective face masks for employees who require it daily, according to the Protect Texas Together website. A guidebook later given to employees shifted responsibility for masks and PPE to individuals instead, according to the Guide for Employees Returning to Campus

When asked about these policies, Kathleen Harrison, communications manager for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, referred to the Faculty Decision Tree, which provides faculty with guidelines for potential positive COVID-19 cases in their classes.

“Employees are expected to provide their own face masks,” Harrison said in an email.

History graduate student Rebecca Johnston, a member of student worker organization Underpaid at UT, said missing PPE was just one of many issues affecting student workers.

UT’s contract tracing program requires notification of “close contacts,” which are defined as people who have been within six feet of someone who tests positive for over 15 minutes, according to a document obtained by The Daily Texan. This often doesn’t apply to in-person TAs and professors in larger classrooms due to social distancing, Johnston said.

TAs are also not allowed to share an individual student’s positive diagnosis or exposure with others in the class due to FERPA regulations, according to the Faculty Decision Tree

When a student tests positive, an internal University Health Services document obtained by The Daily Texan  recommends faculty “encourage student(s) to self-report to UT… (or) ask them if you can report on their behalf.”

“There’s nobody who can demand that students (quarantine) … And since there’s no mandatory testing, a student could go to a private clinic, get tested, be positive, not tell anybody about it and still show up to class,” Johnston said. “There would be no way for anyone to know about it.” 

History graduate student and TA Micaela Valadez said some TAs were not given the option between teaching online or in-person classes. She said availability for online positions varies heavily by department, and the workload of an online environment came with no additional resources.

Harrison also said in an email that TAs will not receive hazard pay during this time. 

Valadez said UT also has not provided enough electronic resources for her or her professors. She said TAs are often left doing tech support for professors in addition to helping develop an online curriculum and finishing their own degree requirements during a pandemic. The University provided faculty with digital workshops for using Zoom and Canvas earlier this year, according to previous reporting by The Daily Texan.

Valadez said UT decentralized responsibilities rather than taking them on.

“Students are worried, anxious and confused … I speak with about 15-20 students per week now. Before the pandemic, for the same class, I would speak to 15-20 students in office hours per semester,” Valadez said. “I love teaching and I’m happy to do it, but it takes a lot more time than previously, and we get paid the same amount.