My name is Celia Arroyo-Lopez and I worked as a researcher at UC Davis from 2014-2017. Despite having a PhD, UC misclassified me in a lower position in order to pay me just $24,000 per year, barely more than minimum wage. I attempted to navigate the layers of bureaucracy at UC to correct this injustice, but this went nowhere. It became increasingly clear to me that the only way for Academic Researchers to ensure fair working conditions is to use our collective power to force the university to change. That is why I, and many other ARs, strongly believe that Academic Researchers must form a union.

I knew when I received my job offer that the salary was relatively low but nonetheless I signed the paperwork for my visa and traveled from Spain to Sacramento to start work at UC Davis Medical Center. My hiring paperwork stated that I was a “65% Junior Specialist,” but this description was never explained to me. I later found out that Junior Specialist positions are specifically for people with only a Bachelor’s degree and had a minimum salary of $36,432. To pay me just $24,000 – about $20,000 less than I should have made as a Postdoc – their plan was to pretend that I did not have a PhD and was only working 65% of the time, while telling me to work full time.

I asked my PI and other administrators several times to correct this and pay me as a full-time Postdoc, only to be refused by all parties. I even sent HR a copy of my PhD certificate, but they ignored this, and at the end of the year appointed me again as a Junior Specialist, only now paying me at 75%. This meant I was still making less than $28,000 (before deductions for taxes and benefits). I continued to work at least 40 hours during the week plus many weekends, and marked this in my timesheets. As a recent immigrant on a visa, I felt hopeless and scared of the consequences to my career if I pushed back.

In August 2016, after being underpaid for almost two years, an HR administrator asked my PI why I was claiming full-time work on my timesheet but was only being paid at 75%. She replied that I was a 75% employee. I provided HR with extensive emails and documents that demonstrated my PI’s dishonest and unethical behavior but no further action was taken. More than a year later, I finally received a response from HR: “The University did not find any other documentation that suggests she worked greater than the amount of time that she was paid.” This is blatantly untrue.

I now know of other international scholars at UC Davis who were misclassified into Junior Specialist titles, paid at part-time rates for full-time work, or both (as in my case). This treatment negatively impacted my mental and emotional health and my dreams of pursuing a career in science have been destroyed. My experience shows that we cannot rely on the benevolence of supervisors or HR to treat researchers fairly or even to follow their own policies. We must demand more from our academic institutions.

By forming a union, Academic Researchers can negotiate a contract that improves working conditions and gives us the power to enforce those protections. If I had been a Postdoc, I would have had contractual language to ensure I was paid correctly and the ability to file a grievance if this was violated. No one should have to experience what I did. This is why we need to form a union to protect our rights and to stop exploitation of international scholars.