UT System workers testify on demands for support during COVID-19

Anna Canizales

The Texas State Employees Union and Underpaid at UT, a graduate student worker organization, hosted a town hall Wednesday where UT System staff, faculty and students voiced support for demands related to the system’s COVID-19 response.

The Union represents all state employees in Texas, and Underpaid at UT was officially created in 2018 to increase graduate student worker salaries, according to their websites. The two organizations created a list of demands to the system including stopping all layoffs and furloughs during the pandemic, providing additional hazard pay of $500 per month for all workers, and making parking reserved under the Americans with Disabilities Act free of charge across system campuses. 

Union organizer Sol Weiner said Union members presented a similar list of demands to the UT System Board of Regents in August but felt like their concerns were not acknowledged or addressed. Union members also testified for the same list of demands at the November system meeting, according to previous reporting by The Daily Texan.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lack of money when there’s a project (UT administrators) really care about and prioritize,” Weiner said during the town hall. “What they need to do is prioritize the safety and well being … of the folks who are really the lifeblood of the campus.”

State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Travis County, attended the town hall to hear student and faculty demands and said the demands seemed reasonable. She said President Jay Hartzell’s pay raise is out of touch with the current situation.

“The timing is terrible,” Goodwin said. “It shows that the priorities at the very top aren’t towards the students and the professors and the staff.”

Lorena Murga, associate professor of sociology at UT-El Paso and Union member, said ADA parking on UT System campuses is very expensive, making it difficult for students and faculty with disabilities to learn and work on campus. 

At UT-El Paso, ADA parking on campus costs the same as regular parking, at $525 per year for employees and $200 per year for students. At UT-Austin, ADA parking for students and faculty with disabilities costs up to $309 per year.

“We often feel that these issues are our own individual issues, but these are really issues that we need to start bringing to light and addressing together,” Murga said. “There’s still a fear that if you voice your opinion in certain spaces that there will be backlash. There are very few ADA parking spaces on campus, and they’re often oversold.”

Micaela Valadez, a PhD candidate in the history department and member of Underpaid at UT, said she has felt more support at the department level rather than at the University-wide level since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We encounter graduate students in other departments that just have no idea what’s going on in terms of how they can keep themselves safe,” Valadez said. “We need more support now, especially in a pandemic.We’re also facing an economic recession, which also needs to be considered.”