ABOVE: graduate students held a press conference at UPR’s Río Piedras campus on Wednesday.

Hundreds of graduate students at the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras campus were paid late or still haven’t received payment for their work as research or teaching assistants since the semester started in mid-August, according to a statement released by students on Wednesday (October 9) and shared with The Scientist. The university blames recent changes in processing paperwork as the cause of the delays, but students say it’s been an ongoing issue for years.

“Graduate students have fulfilled their part of the contract and began to work as stipulated in this, however, they have not been paid,” Eddie Perez, a fourth-year masters student at UPR Río Piedras and the student representative of UPR’s biology department, writes to The Scientist in an email.

Many have taken to Twitter over the...

Because of the delays in payments, some students have had to move back in with their parents, while others are accumulating debt to pay for necessities, says Perez, who is still waiting to receive his stipend as a teaching assistant. He had to spend weeks working part-time as an Uber driver to make ends meet, and was unable to work on his thesis investigating foraging behavior in honeybees until his supervisor loaned him some money, he says.

Anywhere else if they don’t pay you the first month of work, everyone would go on strike where they would just stop working. . . . I think they take [our work] for granted.

—Eddie Perez, UPR graduate student

Others, such as ecology masters student Robert Espaillat Pérez, who only received his payment for the first six weeks of the semester on September 27, were able to get by through loans from partners and families. Of particular concern are international students who don’t have a local support network, according to the statement.

“The administration of the Río Piedras campus of the UPR deeply regrets the inconveniences that this situation has caused,” reads a statement sent to The Scientist by the campus communications director Mario Alegre-Barrios. “The administration is taking all necessary measures so that this does not happen again.”

So far, 322 of 412 graduate students working as teaching or research assistants on campus have received their stipends, explains chemistry professor Néstor Carballeira, the acting dean of the College of Natural Sciences. The remaining 90 will receive the funds by October 15, according to the university’s statement.

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Students say it’s not the first time teaching and research assistants have been paid late, according to local news outlet El Nuevo Dia. “I’ve been a graduate student at the UPR Río Piedras for four years now [and] they’ve never given out the payments on time,” Perez says. Students have come to expect their first checks by late September, even though they are due to be paid in the first half of the month, he explains. “We have been on the backburner.”

The administration’s delay in issuing payments has deterred biology masters student Sofía Meléndez Cartagena from teaching at all. Working as a teaching assistant over the summer break and only getting paid after the program she was supervising had ended was the last straw, she writes to The Scientist. “I had to . . . ask my landlord for more time to pay rent. I basically ate canned food all summer because it was cheaper,” she writes. Now she’s working as a research assistant through a grant that doesn’t rely on school funds, she says.

Paperwork problems

Carballeira acknowledges that the late payments are an ongoing issue. This year saw excessive delays because of recent changes in the way students under the teaching and research assistance program are certified in the university’s system, which resulted in more paperwork than usual. “Once we [fix it], for next year we hope that this is not going to happen again,” he says.

Adding to the administrative issues, some teaching and research assistants whose tuition is supposed to be covered by UPR no longer appear in the school’s system as exempt from having to pay tuition. Rather, their student records reflect a tuition debt. “There may have been some computer glitch, but we are fixing it,” Carballeira says. He clarifies that the university will continue to cover tuition for teaching and research assistants. “These cases are being worked out on a case-by-case basis and, if needed, these students are being reimbursed if money was [mistakenly] subtracted from their accounts,” he adds.

Biology masters student Dalyan Lopez says the glitch has created difficulties in applying for a grant through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) graduate research fellowship program. “Because of this confusion, it appears that I am in debt with the university, preventing me from requesting official documents such as student transcripts that are needed for these applications,” she writes to The Scientist. “We have heard about some of these problems,” writes Carballeira. “We are doing our best to clear the debt in the system so they can get their transcripts ASAP.”

In addition, the graduate students’ statement cites delays in first-year PhD students getting stipends for scholarships they were due to receive in August. This is also due to an error in the administration’s computer system, Carballeira explains. The statement also says that the administration has been slow to hand out grant funds through federal programs such as NSF and NASA. Alegre-Barrios said these funds will be issued on the week of October 15th. 

Tugrul Giray, Perez’s supervisor, says he hopes the university will re-examine its approach towards its students. Graduate students are already difficult enough to attract to UPR, he writes in an email, one reason being the relatively low stipends they receive for assisting with research and teaching undergraduates. “These students that give all the [undergraduate] lab courses are paid $1090 if they are PhD students and $872 if they are MS students per month. The salary plus past tuition waiver still leaves the students with about $10,000 short of what the federal government considers minimum required fund for living expenses.”

Graduate students demand immediate payments of the funds the university owes them and that mechanisms be put in place to prevent delays from happening next year, according to their statement. Meanwhile, Perez and others are holding meetings to decide what actions they’ll take about the delayed payments. A graduate student strike may be on the table, even though it would jeopardize his and his classmates’ theses, he says. “Anywhere else if they don’t pay you the first month of work, everyone would go on strike where they would just stop working. . . . I think they take [our work] for granted.”

Update (October 14): We updated the 13th paragraph to note that grant funds will be issued this week and added the complete surnames of Robert Espaillat Pérez and Sofía Meléndez Cartagena.

Katarina Zimmer is a New York–based freelance journalist. Find her on Twitter @katarinazimmer.

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