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University of California grad students got a wage bump. But for many, it's not enough

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After nearly 50,000 academic workers at the University of California went on strike for six weeks, they won wage increases. But NPR's Danielle Kaye reports that housing and food insecurity are still major concerns for the university's students and researchers.

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: Thursday afternoon is the busiest time of the week at UC Berkeley's school-run Bear Pantry. It's a food pantry that serves residents at University Village, a family housing complex for students and postdoctoral researchers.

MARIYA CHEBAYEVA: We are given free food, like, several times a week.

KAYE: Among the dozens of students and researchers waiting in line for free groceries is Mariya Chebayeva (ph). She's a graduate student from Kazakhstan studying documentary filmmaking. She moved here with her 7-year-old daughter on a scholarship.

CHEBAYEVA: I pay almost all my scholarship for the housing, you know? And I have, like, 200 or 300 bucks left. This is not enough for a grown-up and a kid to survive.

KAYE: For Chebayeva, this food pantry is a lifeline. Without it, she says she'd have to spend twice as much on food each month - more than she could afford after paying rent.

TANISHA MUQUIT: Now, we have 40 to 50 folks standing outside.

KAYE: That's Tanisha Muquit, the basic needs coordinator at University Village. She oversees the pantry and often works with graduate students.

MUQUIT: Oh, yes, they are receiving an education. They're probably the best in their field in achieving this, this and this. But when we think about how much money they actually make and what resources are allocated to them, like, yeah, it's a class issue. Absolutely.

KAYE: The majority of UC graduate students spend more than a third of their income on rent. At least 10% of students have experienced homelessness since arriving at UC Berkeley. And among postdocs, that number is twice as high. Facing food insecurity, some graduate students turn to resources beyond campus - places like the community-run Berkeley Food Pantry.

PHIL RAPIER: You got any questions about housing, rent, unpaid rent?

KAYE: Phil Rapier is a tenant attorney with the Eviction Defense Center in Oakland. This Friday afternoon, he's sitting at a table in front of the pantry, offering free tenant counseling. Rapier says he's talked to graduate students who are spending almost all of their income on rent, like one engineering student Rapier met a couple of months ago, whose income as a graduate student instructor is about $2,300 per month.

RAPIER: She described it as she had a room that was barely big enough for her bed, and that's it - shared bathroom. And she was paying $2,000 a month, and she barely has enough money to live.

KAYE: In December, the union that represents academic workers reached an agreement with the University of California that guarantees raises ranging from 25 to 80%. The university wouldn't make anyone available for an interview. But in a statement about the new contracts, the university's executive director of labor relations said the school is committed to providing employees with competitive compensation. And the school acknowledges that graduate students are essential to research and teaching. About 10% of all postdoc workers in the entire U.S. are employed by the UC system, but access to basic needs is still elusive for many students and postdocs. Bernard Remollino, a recent graduate of UCLA's history Ph.D. program, experienced homelessness at UCLA.

BERNARD REMOLLINO: I was taking classes. I was going to seminars, reading, like, several books a week and trying to write essays and all that kind of stuff.

KAYE: And he was doing all that while earning just $22,000 a year, 80% of which went to renting a room that he says was infested with cockroaches. So in 2018, he decided to live in his car.

REMOLLINO: It was a decision made out of sort of a combination of resignation and frustration.

KAYE: But he felt he had no other options.

REMOLLINO: I was kind of put into the position where I couldn't afford food because I needed to pay rent.

KAYE: Now, he does have a place to live. He moved in with his partner and her family. The recent academic workers' strike shed light on the kinds of challenges Remollino is all too familiar with.

REMOLLINO: This has brought to the fore and in people's consciousnesses just how egregious the living conditions and the wage conditions are in the University of California system.

KAYE: The new contracts, which went into effect as soon as they were ratified, won't eliminate rent burden, but Remollino says the wage increases will provide some relief to thousands of grad students and postdocs struggling to make ends meet.

Danielle Kaye, NPR News, Berkeley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.