Michael Mattox via shutterstock
UConn’s Storrs campus (Michael Mattox via shutterstock)

HARTFORD, CT — A new four-year contract between the University of Connecticut and its 2,200 graduate assistants, which calls for 2 percent pay hikes in each year of the agreement, became a strictly party-line issue in an Appropriations Committee vote on two separate bills Tuesday.

The Senate will send an unfavorable report to the chamber. The vote was split 6-6.

The House voted 21-19 in favor and will receive a favorable report.

UConn and the union representing its graduate assistants reached a tentative agreement on terms last week and then the Board of Trustees approved the contract terms in a special meeting. Members of Graduate Employee Union-United Auto Workers (GEU-UAW) approved them through a vote.

But the contract still needs approval of the General Assembly.

Because it is a contract there is both a House and a Senate version of the bill.

UConn officials told Appropriations Committee members during a two-hour public hearing before the vote that the cost of the contract is $15 million higher than the one that expires at the end of June.

The agreement covers four fiscal years for the period July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2022.

According to the fiscal note attached to the bill, total estimated costs associated with the agreement are $1.6 million in fiscal year 2019; $3.6 million in fiscal year 2020; $4.7 million in fiscal year 2021; and $5.7 million in fiscal year 2022.

East Haddam Republican state Rep. Melissa Ziobron, the ranking member of the committee, said she wasn’t buying what she heard from UConn officials — “lots of comments that this will have no impact on the state budget.”

“What if there is a decrease in the appropriation to UConn from the state,” Ziobron asked UConn Interim Associate Vice President Lloyd Blanchard.

“Our assumption is we hope the budget will be maintained at the current level or higher,” answered Blanchard.

Blanchard added that if there are further cuts his assumption is that it would be up to UConn to bear the brunt of the contract’s increased cost — stating that officials go into any contract negotiation with the notion that additional costs are part of the territory.

The new state budget adopted in October 2017 includes nearly $143 million in cuts to UConn in the budget year that started last July 1 and this year — not including another $21.4 million in cuts enacted last November to help balance this year’s state budget.

That figure was half, however, of what Gov. Dannel P. Malloy originally proposed cutting from UConn’s budget.

Ziobron, who voted against the contract, said her caucus “had a lot of concerns about the affordability of this contract.”

Rep. Gregory Haddad, a Mansfield Democrat who voted in favor, said he was doing so in part because the average salary of the graduate assistants is $20,000. “The workers make less than we do in the General Assembly,” Haddad said.

Ziobron quickly countered that wasn’t the case when you factor in the graduate assistants get free tuition.

Graduate assistants are graduate students who provide teaching or research support to the university as part of their academic programs. They receive stipends and tuition waivers among other benefits as part of their work, which usually lasts for a period ranging from one semester to one academic year.

Almost one third of UConn’s 7,100 graduate students, or about 2,200, are covered by the contract terms.

As with the previous agreement, the contract recognizes that academic matters involving GAs — including coursework, grading, assignments, and decisions regarding a student’s progress toward earning a degree — remain prerogatives of the university that are not governed by the contract.

In addition to the 2 percent annual increases for the next four years in the graduate assistants’ stipends, the contract also calls for waiving an additional $100 of the General University Fee (GUF), bringing the total waived to $300 per semester.

The contract also calls for health and dental insurance coverages that will remain the same as under the previous collective bargaining agreement. Employee contributions for individual coverage increase from $200 annually to $240 annually in the final year of the agreement.

Ziobron expressed shock at how low the insurance payments were, stating she thought “it was a misprint” when she read the figure, stating many of her constituents pay that annual fee monthly.

UConn officials said the reason the insurance cost was so low is that the age of graduate assistants is so young — stating that 90 percent of the graduate assistants are under the age of 35.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, asked the UConn contingent what percentage of graduate assistants were from Connecticut.

The answer she was given was that 58 percent of the graduate assistants were from Connecticut; 5 percent were from out of state; and 37 percent were from out of the United States.

Other committee members asked the average length of time graduate assistants spend at UConn. Four-to-five years was the answer UConn provided.

Lori Pelletier, president of the AFL-CIO, testified in favor of the contract.

“Their efforts help generate $250 million in annual research revenue in the form of grants and contracts from federal and state agencies, local governments and other sources,” Pelletier said. “For every research dollar spent, UConn generates $11.80 in state economic activity.”

Pelletier added: “Graduate assistants are essential partners in helping UConn achieve its core missions of teaching and research excellence. This agreement makes reasonable improvements to pay and benefits that will allow UConn to attract the most talented and promising researchers and teachers.”