Hepner Hall at San Diego State University
Iconic Hepner Hall at San Diego State University. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Soon, I will start my fourth year studying and working as a Ph.D. student and teaching associate in the School of Social Work at San Diego State University. So I was shocked when I received notice that my son and I would be losing our quality, affordable health care, along with 250 of my fellow student workers, who power teaching and research at SDSU.

This unilateral decision by the administration at SDSU caught me by surprise and sent me scrambling to figure out an alternative in short order. The administration claims nothing is changing, that they are merely hiring student workers for fewer hours. And by cutting our hours, we will no longer qualify for our health insurance plan.

Well, I’ve got news for them: losing your employer-provided health insurance in a matter of months is a very big change, and not something we are just going to accept quietly. And how can they expect us to do the same amount of work in fewer hours?

The decision to pause my career as a psychotherapist and return to school was something I felt called to do. At SDSU, I’ve spent approximately 1,200 days devoted to conducting research, advising peers and incoming graduate students, and teaching.

I value the opportunity to work with brilliant people on transforming the legal system, so that it stops harming defendants struggling with substance-use disorders. I calculated returning to school carefully — it meant forgoing some of my family’s income and benefits. I chose SDSU, in part, because of the top-notch health care availability for myself and my son.

As a mental health professional and a person in substance-use recovery, I know how important mental and physical health is — and I’ve seen firsthand the toll that academic programs can take on students and student workers. Graduate students are six times more likely to experience mental and physical health issues than the general population!

Having access to quality health care is critical, especially for those of us with preexisting conditions, and as we manage the demands of our academic programs.

With SDSU’s decision, hundreds of student workers will no longer be eligible for their current health insurance and will be transferred to the Graduate Student Health Insurance program. Under GSHIP, a student worker will end up paying over $2,800 a year in premiums, compared to as little as $0 now. We will have higher deductibles, no out-of-network options, and an $8,700 annual out-of-pocket yearly maximum, versus $1,500 on average now.

What’s worse, I have no ability to add a dependent (my son) onto the insurance plan. These plans might be fine for a healthy 22-year-old, but many student workers are years into our academic careers and have families to care for.

Through our union, UAW Local 4123, which represents student workers across the Cal State University system, who are teaching associates like me plus graduate and instructional student assistants, we are taking action and taking to the streets to ensure that student workers and our families do not lose our health insurance.

So far, over 800 teaching associates and community members have signed an open letter to SDSU President Adela de la Torre and Dean of Graduate Studies Tracy Love urging them to restore our hours and our health plan. Our union has filed an “Unfair Labor Practice” charge demanding to bargain over this change to our working conditions.

Forcing us onto an insurance plan with higher costs is like a slap in the face, as the cost of food and housing continue to soar under inflation. The SDSU administration says that they want to make up for it with tuition waivers. But, like many of my colleagues, I already have a tuition waiver, so their decision is putting me in the red.

The School of Social Work at SDSU is made up of people who will devote their lives to the community. The administration’s short-sighted decision may harm SDSU’s ability to attract talented, bright minds who want to improve education, research and policy. While most of us make sacrifices to pursue advanced degrees, it feels like SDSU is asking us to sacrifice our physical and mental health as well.

Maintaining our health and the peace of mind that we and our loved ones are taken care of allows us to focus on our research and our students. It’s good for us and the university. SDSU must stop its plan to deny access to the affordable, quality health care that student workers depend on.

Garland Gerber is a psychotherapist, a 4th year Ph.D. student researching substance-use issues, and a teaching associate in the School of Social Work at San Diego State University.



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Ellen Bullock