Belabored Stories: NYU Teaching Assistants Are on a Sick-Out

Belabored Stories: NYU Teaching Assistants Are on a Sick-Out

Graduate student-workers, who are paid on a nine-month schedule, are worried about the summer.

[contentblock id=coronavirus]

Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at

Since New York City shut down, graduate teaching assistants at New York University, like other teachers in the city, have been forced to participate in a grand experiment in remote learning. As students were dispersed to their homes around the world, teaching has continued online. But now NYU teaching assistants have had enough and are calling a sick-out.

Sarah Sklaw is one of these workers, currently in her fifth year as a history PhD student studying international development programs in Nicaragua. She explained, “Graduate students at NYU have decided that we will be sicking out from May 6, until Friday, May 8. We will be doing this to escalate the points that we have been raising with the university since the pandemic started and since we went online.” This transition was in mid-March, and the university, she said, has not responded to these demands.

They are calling for emergency summer funding in the form of a living wage for graduate students, a one-year extension of funding and time-to-degree deadlines, tuition waivers for tuition-paying MA students, support for international and undocumented students, and no student-worker hiring freeze.

“We think that this is really important not just for students who are currently at NYU, but also for the incoming class,” Sklaw said. “NYU is a disaster right now and in many ways it feels really irresponsible for them to look at the incoming class and say, ‘Oh, we’re working to be really flexible on X, Y, Z’  [without] giving a clear view about what next semester will look like.”

For the graduate student-workers, who are paid on a nine-month schedule, the summer looks especially dire. “For most of us the last paycheck is going to be on May 15 and we are going to face three months over the summer without any income. This is doubly precarious for international students because their visas have restrictions,” Sklaw noted, adding:

During the summer most of us take outside jobs, additional jobs at the university, or research grants to do different work. International students cannot take outside jobs. It is a violation of the rules of their visa—and there is a hiring freeze at the university. The exact contours of that hiring freeze are purposely obscure and difficult to figure out, but there is a very real chance that for many, many graduate students June 1 is going to roll around and they are not going to be able to pay the rent.

“It is fundamentally an equity issue,” Sklaw continued. “The university tends not to recognize that graduate students are actually fully fledged adults, many of whom have families that they’re supporting. We’ve heard so many stories about people whose partners have been laid off or have had hours cut.” They need a living wage for the summer, she said, as well as extension of their funding for research because, for many, that research has been made almost impossible due to the virus.

Sklaw, a native New Yorker, has an interesting relationship with the university, which exists in New York but not really of it. “[It runs] rampant over downtown New York. NYU has a model of expansion at any cost, essentially,” she said. The workers are frustrated because NYU has not scaled back its capital plan or cut salaries for its highly paid executives. “They are really trying to push that burden onto students who make $30,000 a year.”

Austerity language from such a rich school, she noted, lands wrong.

We are not denying that NYU has probably financially overextended itself with things like the Abu Dhabi campus and its global expansion; but those are not an inevitability. That is a decision that NYU is making. NYU has always run like a real-estate company that also gives classes. There are so many ways in which their response to COVID has really emphasized that. What they are most focused on is getting students back in dormitories because that is where the money comes from.

NYU is not alone in this regard—the graduate students, Sklaw said, have been talking to their colleagues at other universities, particularly those at Columbia. Like other graduate student teachers, she explained, “All of the burden to adjust our teaching to online has fallen on professors and PAs. NYU put out a website. There is a lot of practical work that comes into making a syllabus that is designed to be delivered in person and making it online.” Attendance, she said, has fallen.

Students are struggling enormously to just get assignments in. We have been trying to be super flexible, because I feel personally responsible for my students and their success. What I don’t want to do is add more stress to them in the middle of a literal pandemic. Lots of my students who were in dorms had to evacuate. A lot of them still haven’t gotten their stuff back or the ones that have gotten their stuff back, it is literally crushed. The boxes look like they have been thrown off the side of a building. Then, We have a ton of international students at NYU, as well. I have about half a dozen students in my class alone who are currently in Asia, and one other who is in Europe. That means that they are taking their classes from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m.

She’s trying to make space in her history classes to discuss the crisis and how students are dealing with it. “One of the big emphases in the way that I like to teach history and the teachers that I am teaching with like to teach history is that we really try to focus on the experience of regular people,” she explained.

One of the ways we have been talking about this with students is asking them to talk about what it is like to live through an historical moment. The answer for them often just seems to be frustration and exhaustion. Many of my students have sick family members. One student sent me this panicked email, [saying] “Sarah, I don’t know what to do. We’ve taken in these three little kids who are family friends because their parent went to rehab and we didn’t want them to get sent to Social Services and now I am trying to take my classes as a college student, be an elementary school teacher and a middle school teacher, and take care of a toddler at the same time.” I am like, “Yes, maybe don’t worry about your essay too much.”

Just like public school students, NYU students’ abilities to adapt to online learning, Sklaw said, is shaped by their family situations.

The students who can maintain more of the façade of “this is just online teaching” are the ones who have parents who have stable jobs where they can work from home, who are living in wealthy communities that are not as directly affected by COVID, who have space in their house for them to do work.

Some of her students, then, are struggling more than others, and while NYU likes to talk about diversity, she said, the university has not done anything to support the students.

The graduate students have been building toward the sick-out for a month, she said, because the university has not responded to their needs. “We have given the university a lot of time to even just sit down with us and speak to us and they are really flippant and dismissive and constantly throw austerity language back in our face.”

The sick-out is a relevant tactic in this moment for obvious reasons, Sklaw said.

It is super important that we make this connection between the behavior of the university and our physical and mental health. A sick-out is a good, safe action that allows us to demonstrate the challenges and the real precarity that we are facing coming into the summer; but, also, is this opportunity for us to make the connection between this virus, pandemic, this shutdown, and the university. The university can’t act like it’s outside of it.

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: