By Esha Dhawan
“Some folks are just like, you know, we can’t anymore, we’re moving out of state or we’re moving to other areas where we can afford homes,” said Jose Escanuela, president of Stanford’s local chapter of Service Employees International Union (SEIU Local 2007), speaking on behalf of many Stanford workers.
The situation that Stanford staff members share is not uncommon. Stanford is no stranger to affordability issues, and rising costs continue to have lasting impacts on employees and their families.
As of Jan. 7, five new benefits enhancements for faculty and staff have taken effect in order to alleviate some of the consequences of the affordability crisis. The enhancements span the areas of child care, medical benefits, access to retirement funds, financial resources during a crisis and family leave benefits.
“We learned through our analysis in the [Affordability Task Force] that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for affordability,” said task force chair Elizabeth Zacharias, also the Vice President for Human Resources. “Different circumstances or timing require different types of support for our community. These enhanced benefits, available to all benefits-eligible employees, are aligned with data gathered by the ATF about the financial stress and family care challenges employees experience.”
The Affordability Task Force (ATF) was created in the fall of 2018 in response to the high costs of living at Stanford and is a part of Stanford’s long-range planning process. SEIU Local 2007 has been negotiating with Stanford and the ATF for benefits that address affordability.
Changes that were negotiated as part of 2019 SEIU contract negotiations include six paid weeks of leave, changes to the Medical Contribution Assistance Program (MCAP) and back-up care days.
Escanuela, who joined the local SEIU as a temporary worker fifteen years ago, has seen firsthand the struggles Stanford employees often face with affordability, ranging from housing to healthcare. When it comes to the union’s satisfaction with the new benefits enhancements that the Affordability Task Force has had, Escanuela said that they have made some good progress.
The increase from five to 10 days of back-up care was necessitated by rising childcare costs and the lack of ability to find local childcare. Finally, the increase from 60 to 70% pay during six weeks of family leave to 100% was a win on behalf of the SEIU in order to help employees spend time taking care of their families with pay.
Escanuela explained that the system to file for leave was often not easy for workers to navigate.
“People sometimes may not file claims because it’s pretty complex,” he said. “For some members who are unable to log onto computers or don’t speak English, they may take vacation [instead].”
Despite the SEIU’s many efforts to be heard by Stanford administration and despite being one of the largest staff groups on campus, it is rare that SEIU members are given a spot at the table when it comes to making decisions that affect workers, according to Escaneula.
As a result, the SEIU has relied on many campaigns, protests and strikes throughout the years in order to make themselves heard. To the new administration’s credit, more positive changes have been seen — SEIU was one of the first groups University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne met with in 2015 and Provost Persis Drell has met with the group several times throughout the years.
Graduate students’ impact
While these changes to benefits primarily apply to Stanford employees, some recent changes affect graduate students as well. Much like the SEIU, the Stanford Solidarity Network (SSN), an activist group composed of Stanford graduate and undergraduate students and staff, has not had many opportunities to meet with Stanford administration in an official capacity to discuss their concerns. Instead, they have turned to rallies and public demonstrations to get the administration’s attention, as seen most recently by a protest to push for a more affordable healthcare plan.
These efforts are finally beginning to come to fruition. Irán Román, SSN member and ASSU Co-Director of Affordability, mentioned recent changes that have been made to the Graduate Family Grant Program, which provides need-based funding for graduate students with dependent children.
“On Monday, I received an email from the financial aid office saying that my graduate family grant stipend was going to be increased by $3,500,” he said. A Family Grant recipient for two years, Román said that the maximum grant amount has been raised from $10,000 a year to $15,000 a year.
He explained that on top of his rent, the additional fees ranging from the student health services fee of $224 per quarter to the $74 technology fees per quarter add up, making the extra stipend a big help.
However, there is still much progress to be made. For one, many individuals aren’t aware of these grants or aren’t able to access them easily. The most universal solution, Román stresses, would be to implement free dependent healthcare for children and for spouses who do not receive insurance through an employer.
According to Román, decisions regarding healthcare fees are expected to be made at the administrative level by late February, when the first round of graduate student acceptances begin to come out.
Tackling housing affordability
Despite a number of changes, the new benefits still fail to address one of the largest complaints among Stanford employees and students: housing affordability. For the SEIU, this is the most important priority.
In a statement to The Daily, University spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote that “Stanford recognizes the critical affordable housing challenges in our region, which is why the University is a major supporter and developer of affordable housing.”
Meanwhile, however, some Stanford workers who have been employed for over 10 years are unable to keep their jobs due to housing costs, according to Escaneula.
“We are losing folks to not being able to afford a place to stay or just being priced out of the market,” Escanuela said. “We’re seeing more of that. People are really struggling and people are really hanging on.”
Moving forward, Escanuela hopes that the Affordability Task Force and Stanford administration will take this into consideration.
“We hope that they don’t wait until the end of our contract to come up with other ways that they can help address the affordability for other folks,” he said. “They can address these things and they should. They should be the leaders.”
A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that MCAP was updated so that the income level that is required to qualify for in order for Stanford to subsidize the cost of healthcare is based on employee income rather than household income. Actually, the benefit is still based on family annual gross income (AGI). The change that was implemented was that Stanford raised the family AGI so that more people can qualify. The Daily regrets this error.
Contact Esha Dhawan at edhawan ‘at’ stanford.edu.