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UVA has repeatedly failed to pay its graduate students on time — and no one at the university can figure out why

A group of seven adults and one child in matching red T-shirts stand with their fists in the air in front of a brick building with white columns.

Over winter break, the University of Virginia failed to pay somewhere between 60 and 120 of its graduate students on time — and no one at the university is giving details about why it happened.

When graduate students realized their stipends were late in December, the UVA branch of the United Campus Workers of Virginia — along with multiple local news outlets — began asking the university what happened. UVA’s response was somewhat vague.

“A change in this year’s staff and administrative calendar resulted in the delayed release of stipend disbursements to a limited number of graduate students,” UVA spokesperson Brian Coy said in a prepared statement. “The stipends typically appear in the accounts of graduate students by the first of each month. A shift in the processing date due to UVA’s winter break, which was expanded by two days this year, meant that some of the funds were processed later than is customary.”

Charlottesville Tomorrow immediately followed up asking for more details about how the administrative function was overlooked in the scheduling of the break. The short answer: Officials don’t know.

“In terms of responsibility for stipends, it’s a multi-stage process that begins with the academic departments and then filters down to [Student Financial Services] and ultimately Accounts Payable,” Coy said.

Officials are also unsure how many graduate students received payments late. A university spokesperson has yet to respond to multiple Charlottesville Tomorrow requests for this number. When the union asked, UVA gave them a range.

This stuff doesn’t happen to other employees.

—UVA campus union chair Laura Ornée

This is not the first time the university has paid graduate students late, said Laura Ornée, chair of the campus union and a Ph.D. candidate in UVA’s Corcoran Department of History. 

“I’ve had it happen before that my entire department didn’t get paid on time,” Ornée said. “It’s happened to individual friends of mine in the history department. We did a collective action for one person before, in the summer, where she didn’t get paid on time and she basically got the runaround from administrators, saying, ‘We can’t put it in the system now, you’ll have to wait until your next paycheck.’”

Cville Weekly interviewed several graduate students who said they’ve had similar experiences.

Spokesperson Coy confirmed that “it is accurate to say that some students in the past have received stipends late for one reason or another.” 

This is probably the largest number of checks delayed at one time, Ornée said.

Late payments are a problem for the graduate students who rely on that income month-to-month to cover expenses like rent. In fact, several of the graduate students who received late payments are now facing fines from their landlords for late rent, Ornée said. The university says it will cover those fines.

Facing questions and scrutiny from the union and local media, the Provost’s Office announced it will form a task force to investigate the issue. University officials have not responded to questions about when the task force will form, who will be on it or how long the review will take.

Union leaders say they are pleased that the university is taking action, though they’re also puzzled about why the university administration is forming a task force — rather than hiring an accountant.

“What’s a task force going to do?” Ornée said. “The issue is clear: People aren’t getting paid on time. It requires resources to fix, and that just needs to happen.”

Ornée paused.

“This stuff doesn’t happen to other employees,” she added.

More about UVA

It’s true. A university spokesperson said simply that this is because general staff payroll is “processed through a different system.”

From a legal standpoint, university staff are paid wages — and wages are protected by state law. Employees who receive their wages late can sue for double the amount owed, with interest. The state can also fine institutions for paying employees late. It’s called wage theft.

Graduate students, on the other hand, are paid stipends. Though the university breaks graduate student stipends into monthly checks — which function like wages for the students — they do not receive the same wage protections under state law.

“The laws around stipends are way less strict,” Ornée said. “So, it’s just not a priority for them, or hasn’t been.”

The union has struggled to get the university to take the matter seriously, she added. It’s unclear to union leaders how long this issue has been going on. The union just formed two years ago and stepping in on behalf of graduate students who received their pay late is one of their first major collective actions.

This comes at a time when universities around the country are seeing increased union activity for graduate students. University of California graduate students recently won significant raises after staging the largest strike in higher education in U.S. history. That strike included graduate students, postdocs and researchers.