Op-ed: $15 for all campus workers

Lacy Murphy | Washington University Graduate Workers Union Member

Letter from the Editor: The article “It’s time for $15 per hour for everyone” by Student Life staff writer Matthew Wallace, an undergraduate student, and this op-ed by WUGWU member Lacy Murphy, a graduate student, have been intentionally published together to represent the experiences of undergraduate and graduate student workers at Washington University. Both authors are members of Fight for $15, a student group working to raise the minimum wage on campus to $15.

My name is Lacy Murphy and I am a Ph.D. student at Washington University. I am also a dues-paying member of Washington University Graduate Workers Union (WUGWU). WUGWU unites with workers at other local institutions of higher education with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, and engages in a broader, nationwide movement to fight for labor protections and dignified working conditions for all. I support my union because, while the intellectual benefits of working at Wash. U. have been inestimable, workers at Wash. U. do not currently have the power to ask for meaningful improvements to their work environment. I hope that my story will help my superiors, colleagues and students understand what it means to live on low wages with an inadequate healthcare plan.

In October 2017, I underwent what seemed like a fairly routine CT scan to determine the cause of the pain I had been experiencing in my neck for several months. Later that afternoon, I received a call from my doctor’s office informing me that the right carotid artery of my neck was narrowed by 70 percent, the left carotid artery was narrowed by 30 percent and that there was evidence of narrowing in the right subclavian artery of my arm. In the ensuing weeks, I underwent an ultrasound, four MRIs and an exhaustive series of testing—all of which were necessary for diagnosis.

My disease is called Takayasu’s Arteritis, a rare autoimmune disorder affecting only two to three people per million each year that causes inflammation in the large arteries. If left untreated, this disease can be fatal. Takayasu’s, like many other autoimmune disorders, is managed medicinally and requires frequent blood-testing and doctor visits. Needless to say, not only has this experience been extremely frustrating, painful, saddening and isolating, it has also been very expensive.

Wash. U.’s healthcare plan puts graduate workers in a financially and medically precarious situation. Currently, the out-of-pocket maximum for in-network providers through our healthcare plan is $5,000. That means that only after I have spent $5,000 on deductibles, copayments and coinsurance will our insurance plan pay 100 percent of the costs of covered benefits. As someone with a chronic illness who requires frequent doctor visits, medications and imaging for effective treatment, this plan puts me in financial and medical risk.

As a graduate worker at Wash. U., I currently make $23,360 before taxes. Last month, I paid $662.60 for medical related expenses. This month, I have already received medical bills amounting to $873.86—a bill that is over one-third of my monthly paycheck. As a result of this healthcare plan, I often procrastinate on seeking medical attention when new symptoms emerge or have to choose between visiting the doctor and paying for other necessities like vehicle maintenance. For example, in the last month, I have opted not to undergo additional blood-testing requested by my doctor and have put off going to physical therapy—things I need in order to ensure good health.

For me, receiving better pay and a more comprehensive healthcare plan at Wash. U. would mean financial stability, peace of mind and a healthier body. I would not have to wonder if an unanticipated visit to my doctor or necessary medical testing might mean that I can’t afford to fix my vehicle if it were to break down. It would mean that I could maintain a savings account that would provide the financial padding needed to feel secure in life.

My story is only one of hundreds of workers at Wash. U. who juggle bills, live paycheck to paycheck, can’t make ends meet and live in financial precariousness, all the while being expected to contribute to the robust academic community for which Wash. U. is known. My colleagues and I have all earned four-year degrees (or higher), feel passionate about our careers and chose Wash. U. because we believed that we could pursue our livelihoods here. We contribute to the intellectual prestige of this institution and we provide a wide variety of academic support to our departments through teaching, grading, research and departmental service. Without our labor, Wash. U. would not enjoy the status that it does.

Wash. U. holds itself to the highest of intellectual standards. It’s time that they were also held to a high moral standard. I am calling on Wash. U.’s administration to pay their workers a living wage: Fifteen dollars per hour or $31,000 annually.

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