Before they were a student at the University of Memphis, Crys Riles was a professional chef and caterer in the Memphis area.
When the pandemic hit, Riles was laid off and decided to go back to school. They had previously earned an undergraduate degree in culinary arts and this time decided to take only a slight different path. Instead of learning to cook and bake food, Riles wanted to learn the anthropology behind it. They enrolled at the U of M and soon earned their B.P.S. through its Department of Anthropology.
Riles is now a grad assistant in the department, pursuing their master’s degree. The only problem is that they aren’t paid much and things like health insurance, while obviously necessary, is something they struggle to afford.
Fortunately, for Riles and other graduate assistants, a break might be coming soon.
The University of Memphis chapter of United Campus Workers (UCW), a labor union that represents higher education faculty in several states across the US, is campaigning to see a health insurance plan sponsored by the university made available to graduate assistants on campus.
The university does not currently offer a health insurance plan to graduate assistants. The only thing it offers is the MEMPHIS plan from Church Health, a Christian medical organization based out of Crosstown Concourse.
The university emphasizes on its website that the plan is not health insurance. Instead, it is a range of voluntarily provided medical services from local doctors, hospitals and labs that are partnered with the organization. The plan is aimed at self-employed Memphians and employees of small businesses in the city that are uninsured and “fall through the cracks of the current healthcare system because they earn too much to qualify for state or federal programs," according to Church Health’s website.
At the cheapest level, students under the plan – that is those without any dependents – only pay $50 each month, ten of which is covered by the university, as well as a five dollar co-pay whenever they see their assigned doctor under the plan.
It may sound like a good deal, despite not being true insurance, but representatives from the university’s UCW chapter stated major issues with the plan.
“It’s barely even preventive care,” said Meghan Cullen, vice president for the chapter.
Several of the issues that Cullen has with the plan include the fact that those enrolled are assigned one specific hospital in the city as well as one specific doctor and that any care provided outside of those parameters isn’t covered. Part of this is because the plan is only applicable in network, meaning that for anyone under the plan that travels outside of the Memphis area likely won’t be covered.
Andreana Smith, director of the MEMPHIS plan for Church Health, also told the Daily Helmsman that those who are unsatisfied with their care can request another physician, but it could take time because many of them only take a certain number of patients. If they are at capacity, it can be hard to find a spot for those who are seeking a new doctor.
“Under the MEMPHIS plan, the person should be receiving preventive care and any other care that they need. So, they are treated as though they are any other patient… If you are not completely jiving with a certain provider, I do understand that can be a point of frustration, but the plan actually covers all of those things. You’re treated like any other person who has insurance,” she said.
Cullen said that the chapter is seeking a comprehensive health insurance plan for graduate assistants that includes preventive, emergency and neonatal care as well as vision and dental coverage.
By continuing to not provide health insurance, Cullen believes the university runs the risk of not being competitive with other R1 institutions in the country.
“If we aren’t providing benefits that other colleges will provide, we aren’t being competitive,” she said.
Even though this might be true, Raaj Kurapati, CFO for the university, told the Daily Helmsman in an email that providing a health insurance plan for graduate assistants just isn’t financially feasible right now.
“Just because we made R1 does not mean that we suddenly have an infinite amount of financial resources at our disposal. The university has explored several options to provide health insurance coverage to our graduate assistants. Unfortunately, all have been cost prohibitive. We remain committed to supporting all our colleagues and will continue to look for avenues on this front.”
According to Kurapati, based on one proposal that the university received, the cost of implementing a health insurance plan for graduate assistants at the university would exceed $3.5 million dollars per year, based on the current number of graduate assistants the university has. He also said that pricing was based on the number of students enrolled in the plan, so if the university didn’t get enough students to enroll, the cost would be much greater.
Kurapati didn’t clarify how long ago the proposal was received or where it came from.
The cost of a potential health insurance plan was also the main factor in preventing Riles from completely throwing their weight behind the chapter’s campaign.
“Anything that takes away from that [the wages that graduate assistants are paid] makes graduate assistantship less useful as a way to pay the bills,” they said.
One solution Riles said would ease their concerns would be to make the cost of the plan included in the cost of tuition or simply presented as a mandatory fee at the start of the semester.
Doing this, they said, would eliminate having to pay for the plan monthly and therefore make it more affordable.
Riles also suggested simply putting more money into the existing health services that the university already provides as an alternative to funding a new health insurance plan.
UCW Tennessee’s executive vice president, Shukura Umi, who is also a graduate assistant at the university in the Department of Communication and Film, said that she would eventually like to see the university offer a subsidized option, but the goal is just to get anything at all right now.
“Yes, we would like to have some sort of service where it could maybe be a sliding scale depending on the situation and then depending on how much you can pay, maybe in premium, but I think right now we’re just trying to get something on the books,” she said.
Even if it a plan isn’t implemented in their ideal way, Riles said they still support the campaign.
“I think having the option would be better than not,” they said.
Members of the University of Memphis chapter of UCW during their campaign for $15 minimum wage for campus workers. The university announced last January that it would raise the wage floor for campus workers to $15 an hour.
Meghan Cullen is the VP for the University of Memphis chapter of UCW. She also serves as an administrative coordinator for the university’s Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and previously served as the president of the university’s faculty senate.