Union accuses UC Davis of exploiting foreign researchers

Administration made reparations to two misclassified workers, evaluates 200 more

International researchers at UC Davis are being underpaid and deprived of medical benefits, says the union representing the campus’ more than 6,000 postdoctoral researchers.

UAW Local 5810 has identified at least three “postdocs” who were improperly placed in lesser job categories like “visiting scholar,” and is pressing the university to turn over personnel information to determine if more have been misclassified, deliberately or not.

“Sometimes there’s a villain and sometimes it’s just unfortunate incompetence,” said Local 5810 organizer Jeff Otter.

The inquest started in late 2013, when Otter met Cherre Bezerra Da Silva, a Brazilian entomologist who thought he was working for the university as a postdoctoral scholar. In fact, a UC Davis press release with photos from August 2012 identifies Da Silva by that very title.

The title refers to individuals who have recently completed a doctoral program and work under the supervision of a faculty mentor in preparation for an advanced research career, whereas a visiting scholar can still be seeking a degree and is ineligible for salary or wages. (“No person may be appointed as a Visitor if an appointment as Postdoctoral Scholar is more appropriate,” the University of California’s criteria for appointment states.)

It wasn’t until that chance encounter with Otter that Da Silva learned he had been employed for more than a year under a title that paid him at least $13,000 less annually—and didn’t provide health insurance.

After the union filed a grievance on his behalf in November 2013, Da Silva says he was retaliated against. As a result, he said in an email interview with SN&R, a “dream position” he lined up with Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture was rescinded.

“They … ended [up] ruining my career, which was just taking off,” the former postdoc wrote.

UC Davis agreed to pay Da Silva $16,000 in back pay and damages, while a complaint before the California Public Employment Relations Board is pending a decision. The university also promptly reclassified one other international postdoc, from Ecuador, after being alerted by Local 5810, Otter said.

Another mislabeled postdoc has been reluctant to enter into the process, Otter said, because he saw what happened to Da Silva. Da Silva said he knows of other Brazilian postdocs like himself who work under downgraded job classifications, but are too afraid to speak up.

UCD administrators acknowledge incorrectly classifying two visiting researchers, and say they’ve made reparations. “[T]he researchers have been reclassified as postdoctoral scholars and are receiving back pay as appropriate,” UCD spokesman Andy Fell wrote in an email.

According to email correspondences SN&R obtained from university officials and union representatives, it was just over a year ago that UC Davis identified 385 individuals on campus with visas indicating they could be postdoctoral scholars, but weren’t listed as such.

SN&R obtained an Excel spreadsheet from this March that documents the university’s current list of international scholars who “might” be misclassified, Fell said. On it, there are now 333 names, 214 of which—or 64 percent—still need evaluating. “We expect that the vast majority most [sic] will turn out to be correctly classified,” Fell wrote.

Otter accuses the university of dragging its feet when it came to providing such information. “The university has been resistant to giving us that information,” he said. “The more the university stalls, the more shafted these people are.”

The union has called for increased training, which appears to be happening.

“Differentiating between visiting and postdoctoral scholars can be difficult, and so Graduate Studies is also in the process of developing training materials to ensure such misclassifications do not occur,” Fell explained.

The lack of premeditation is of little comfort to Otter. “People being accidentally screwed out of health care, we think is a big deal,” he said.

Da Silva incurred a $2,000 hospital bill after suffering an asthma attack while working at the university. He has yet to find a new job.

Meanwhile, labor negotiations between the UC system and the postdoc union are occurring. Otter said one of the UC proposals—exclusions for “paid-directs”—could allow universities to hire postdocs for less money, removing one of the possible motives for misclassifying them. “What it would mean, though, is enshrining a deeply exploitative practice—underpaying a certain class of postdocs, sometimes dramatically—into the contract,” he wrote in a follow-up email.