What the FICA?

For many graduate workers, their lives are filled with acronyms. This might come from their work (for me it is BVAR, EPN, SMO, ERGM, TERGM, GERGM…), or from their academic affiliations (APSA, MPSA, SPSA, ASA…), or from their day-to-day work in the University itself (GPSA, LA, GAPS, WGSO…). One of the terms we’ve heard floating around a lot recently is FICA Tax, or the Federal Insurance Contribution Act Tax. This is a tax that you might notice coming on and off your paycheck as you follow the graduate worker lifecycle of school stipend to summer stipend. As it stands now, our 10 month stipend is exempt from FICA tax, giving us a cool savings of 7%.

We have heard concerns that if we unionize we might lose our exemption. These concerns come straight from the Penn State Graduate School, which is happy to spread this misinformation on their refurbished graduate funding FAQ (if you go back to before the unionization campaign started you’ll notice a much more sparse website, with no mention of FICA). This is not the first time that we’ve found Penn State Graduate School misconstruing reality (see our edited version of their memo they sent out to faculty for several pages of examples).


So, is it true? Does unionization change our status and make us ineligible for FICA exemption? No. In fact, unionized grads at University of Florida, University of Michigan, Temple University, University of California, Oregon State University, Michigan State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Illinois Chicago, Southern Illinois University, and Montana State University have remained exempt from FICA status during the school year.

If it’s not true, why would the graduate school claim it? Because it’s a textbook tactic for career higher education administrators faced with graduate employees that want change. The logic is simple: if they create enough uncertainty and fear about graduate employees working together in a union, administrations can maintain the status quo. Truth and facts aren’t their allies.

Sadly, even though our community is built on learning and the pursuit of knowledge, administrators would rather use “alternative facts” than give graduate employees the information they need to decide for themselves. We deserve better than that.