Student Workers Stand Behind Graduate Student Facing Unemployment Due to Disability

Photo taken from UCSD Labor Commission event story on day of demonstration.

A coalition of student labor organizations, including the UC Student-Workers Union (UAW 2865) and the UCSD Labor Commission, led an on-campus demonstration last Friday on behalf of a student worker facing unemployment because of his disability status.

Wearing red shirts (the official UAW 2865 color), about 30 students coalesced outside the DisAbility Counseling and Consulting (DCC) center to stand in solidarity with Krys Mendez, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Ethnic Studies.

Mendez has aggressive multiple sclerosis (MS), an incurable chronic disease affecting the central nervous system. His symptoms include chronic pain, migraines, fatigue, numbness, as well as cognitive and mobility difficulties.

On September 17, 2018, UC San Diego offered Mendez a temporary Reader position through December. But without continued, secure employment for the academic year, Mendez loses crucial healthcare that allows for his survival.

Student labor organized the demonstration around a planned, closed-door meeting between Mendez, representatives from the UAW 2865 labor union, and UC administration. According to ASUCSD Organizing Director Prajay Lolabattu, union representatives informed students that the hour-long meeting failed to produce a solution for Mendez’s employment status. The representatives claimed that UC administration refused to “create a position that doesn’t exist” for Mendez.

Mendez’s meeting with UC administration was the latest development in a long-standing conflict since the start of the 2018-19 academic year, when Mendez was abruptly terminated from his former Warren Writing TA position.

Mendez said that the problem stemmed from a miscommunication on his medical forms. When Mendez’s doctors checked off a yes-no question indicating that he was unable to work as a standard TA, Warren Writing’s automated system sent an email unassigning Mendez from the job.

The university was not able to provide a suitable, timely alternative with necessary disability accommodations in place of the TA position for Mendez. According to the UCSD Student Worker Union, this violated Article 3 and 23 of the UAW 2865 labor contract, which concern “Appointment Security” and “Reasonable Accommodations,” respectively.

In response to his firing, UCSD grad students Alexia Arani, Mellissa Villafranco, and Boke Saisi launched an online petition demanding UC administration action. The petition received over 500 signatures. After the student worker union also cited these violations to Dean of Social Sciences Carol Padden, Mendez was offered his temporary Reader position.

Mendez expressed frustration with both DCC and the Office of Student Disability (OSD): “DCC seemed more invested in protecting the business needs of the administration than showing compassion for a disabled graduate student fighting for his life,” he said. “In spite of my repeated efforts to advocate for myself, I consistently felt as if my concerns and suggestions were ignored or de-prioritized [sic].”

UAW 2865 representative Celine Khoury explained that, to her, Mendez’s situation is just one example of institutional discrimination against disabled peoples in the UC system.

“The UC is killing Krys Mendez and unfortunately, he is not alone. More broadly, disabled student-workers are forced to work against the system and to ‘fight through the pain,’” Khoury told The Triton. “Any student-worker who has an injury or physical/mental disability continues to be impacted by the UC’s ableism—an ableism that we have fought and continue to fight against.”

UCSD Communications and Public Affairs declined to comment on individual personnel matters, but stated their commitment to “providing reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities as required by law.”

Isabelle Yan is the Managing Editor of The Triton. Assistance in research and writing for this article was provided by Staff Writer Sylvia O and Assistant News Editor Ethan Coston.