Bowie State University graduate assistant Liberty Deffenbaugh said a professor asked for help setting up an online class before her contract — and pay — began before the spring semester.

She did it, chalking up the request to life as a GA. But when she told her supervisor about the request, the professor who asked for help accused the 33-year-old master’s student of “complaining.”

At the University of Maryland at College Park, housekeeper Shernette Lyons says she requested additional safety equipment, including N95 masks and disposable gowns, for months but nothing materialized. She was scared, but the 11-year veteran showed up to work anyway, mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms in a residence hall.

Across the statewide university system, graduate students and front-line campus workers have long fought for fair wages and greater protections at work. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and their demands became more urgent.

“Since the pandemic came, we have a lot of members … signing up,” Saul Walker, a 67-year-old maintenance worker on the College Park campus, said about increased support for his union. “When things start getting hard, people want to start getting involved.”

Now, more energized than before, groups of graduate students and workers hope state lawmakers can help their causes. Bills affecting the workers are now making their way through the Maryland General Assembly.

For graduate students, 'there's never been a better time'

One measure would authorize graduate student workers to collectively bargain, opening a pathway for students to negotiate working conditions, pay, hours and other benefits.

“This is about supporting the workers, the employees of this system who are, bottom line, the ones who keep the trains running on time,” said Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), who is sponsoring the bill. “Without them, there is no university system.”

Similar pieces of legislation have been introduced in previous years but never managed to garner the necessary support.

But some students say the coronavirus has made issues faced by graduate assistants — who work part-time in teaching, research or administrative roles — more acute. Their contracts can be changed at a moment’s notice, meaning students are often reassigned without their input.

Many graduate assistants in the university system are parents and are raising families on stipends that, on average, hover around $19,000 per year, according to graduate student organizers.

“Covid is just exacerbating these perennial concerns that we’ve had, and we’re tired of waiting for this right,” said Rachel Lamb, a PhD candidate in the geographical sciences department at U-Md. “There’s never been a better time or a more important time.”

Graduate assistants in the University System of Maryland are currently prohibited from unionizing. Instead, the schools offer “meet and confer” sessions in which students can air grievances or ask for changes in the workplace.

Those meetings have yielded some changes. In response to persistent concerns over wages, U-Md. has increased its minimum stipend by 20 percent since 2018, said Steve Fetter, dean of the university’s graduate school. The average stipend on the campus is now $22,000.

But administrators are not obligated to make changes, according to the university system’s policy.

Graduate assistants “are all first and foremost students earning advanced degrees,” Joann Boughman, the university system’s senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, told lawmakers at a virtual hearing in February. She added that most graduate assistants receive tuition remission and health insurance.

Boughman said “it hurts us” to hear stories about students who have had negative workplace experiences. But she said if students decide to unionize, it could harm the relationships that graduate students have with their supervisors, who are often professors who serve as mentors.

And, down the line, officials said it could be costly for institutions.

“If collective bargaining leads to substantially higher stipends, and our budget does not increase proportionally, that will lead us to be able to offer graduate assistantships to fewer students,” Fetter told lawmakers.

Graduate assistants say money is only one of their concerns. Autumn Perkey, who is pursuing a PhD in the government and politics department at U-Md., moved from Ohio to Maryland in 2019. She left an abusive relationship with her two children — then 3 and 5 years old — in tow.

She is concerned about people like herself, juggling the responsibilities of a parent and a student. She wants to make sure graduate workers qualify for child-care subsidies and can take enough time off to care for their families.

“There are other people in the PhD program, and what if they want to have kids?” Perkey said. “The parental leave policy is six weeks.”

She added, “we don’t have protections against unemployment.”

Perkey said she’s fortunate to have a supervisor who is understanding, but not everyone is as lucky.

Workers push for standardization

Relations between the College Park campus and some of its employees were fraught before the pandemic, according to the union that represents 6,500 workers throughout the University System of Maryland.

The public health crisis has made them untenable, workers said.

Louise Ouattara was nervous to return to work as a housekeeper in one of the dorms. She was sickened during the adenovirus outbreak at U-Md. that left one student dead and sickened dozens of others in 2018.

The university has provided workers with surgical masks and gloves throughout the pandemic, but anxieties remain. Ouattara’s union has tried to negotiate new safety guidelines, but only a handful of universities in the statewide system have agreed.

U-Md. officials have met almost weekly with union representatives to “hear and discuss issues and concerns, which include those related to the pandemic,” said Natifia Mullings, a spokeswoman for the campus. The university has offered to start collective bargaining negotiations on all topics — including health and safety — but those discussions can take more than a year, according to union leaders.

“We’ve been at odds and at war because, at every turn, they fight us,” said Stuart Katzenberg, a union official. He estimates at least 250 workers systemwide have tested positive for the coronavirus; two died after contracting covid-19.

The union has long wanted to do away with what leaders say is a time-consuming and costly process of negotiating 15 different contracts with the institutions that constitute the University System of Maryland. State Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery) has sponsored a bill that would do just that, requiring the university system to bargain directly with the union and set standards — in pay, benefits and other factors — across the collection of universities and education centers.

The university system has the final say on labor contracts anyway, Solomon said.

“There’s this back-and-forth that oftentimes will happen,” Solomon said. “This is about short-circuiting that.”

Kramer has introduced the legislation in the state Senate.

Some leaders within the university system voiced concern last month that such an arrangement could undermine the power college presidents have over their campuses.

“Presidents are given flexibility to set salaries and working conditions to best meet the needs of their institutions,” Carolyn Skolnik, the university system’s associate vice chancellor, said at a February appropriations committee hearing. “The university’s mission, size, budget and labor market all influence these decisions.”

Others worry it could erode relationships between employees and their bosses.

“We have good labor relations on our campus, and we would like to keep it that way,” Lisa Early, associate vice president of human resources at Coppin State University, said at the hearing.

But John B. King Jr., the founder of Strong Future Maryland, said the legislation to consolidate bargaining across campuses could actually help workers at historically Black universities like Coppin access the same opportunities and benefits as their peers at predominantly White schools.

“Too often, we see that HBCUs in this state have not been treated equally,” said King, who served as U.S. education secretary under President Barack Obama. “This is an option to rectify that.”

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the past year has galvanized workers. Lyons, the veteran U-Md. housekeeper, helped members write and sign a petition to get N95 masks for workers.

“We have quite a few of them that are making a difference and they want to do things for the union,” Walker said about his co-workers, adding that the stakes are higher “when you start putting your life on the line.”

An earlier version of the story quoted U-Md. graduate assistant Autumn Perkey saying she worked 80 hours a week. She later clarified the time includes other responsibilities, including her graduate work.