Today, I drove myself to the Doctor’s office on the other side of a sleepy early morning State College. I patiently explained my condition to an albeit standoffish doctor as I recounted the past two months of appointments and medication. In July, after returning from fieldwork in Kenya for my dissertation (well, pre-dissertation), I had a mild ear infection that resulted in hearing loss. It’s at 40% in both ears now and I’ll be needing hearing aids in order to continue my mostly qualitative work (interviewing, listening, these are key to my research). After a painful procedure to test my left cochlear with steroids, I headed off to the office, a little woozier than I would have liked, to start a day of meetings and online teaching at my Graduate Assistantship.
Hearing aids aren’t covered by my graduate student insurance and cost more individually than I make in a month on my stipend from the university. Two years ago, when I first started at Penn State, I didn’t need hearing aids, and I don’t know if they would have been covered under the previous, better policy that we had (probably not, honestly, insurance doesn’t like to pay for hearing aids). But the fact is that without a union, as a student worker, there is literally nothing I can do to affect change about my health insurance, my stipend, my hours, the amount of time I need to take off to attend appointments, etc.
I have a great job, better even then my job last year. I TA, support faculty-led research, present at conferences, publish, all while working towards my own dissertation. I work with great and understanding faculty and staff who will give me a break when I need it. But I can’t live on the goodness of others alone, unfortunately. I’m vulnerable now, because I’m sick, and I need something that will protect me if I need to take more time off, if something gets worse. And I’m not alone.
I was pro-union before I got sick because I saw what happened to the health insurance plan that I came to this school with in 2013. I saw how the plan was swapped out by an administration that was unable (or unwilling) to negotiate for its most vulnerable staff. I saw my colleagues fight for our healthcare and make inroads. The policy we ended up with was better than the one originally handed down to us but it still means I pay the equivalent of half of my month's rent out of pocket every time I go to the doctor (in network or out, doesn’t matter). That negotiation happened because the administration had some ability to listen to our needs. Imagine what we could accomplish if we organized together! Working alongside the university, which already works with other unions to protect staff and faculty, we could ensure that no other graduate student workers will face the same insecurity that I’m facing now.
I’m not asking for handouts, I’m not asking for more money, or “perks,” I’m asking for the protection that all workers in this country have the right to ask for and to have. I am grateful to work for and produce scholarly works for the world-renowned research institution that is Penn State. I look forward to the day when I can say that this institution is great because it protects its workers, all of its workers, and that we all have a voice in our work and futures.