WU to support non-salaried workers as part of COVID-19 response

| News Editor

With non-salaried undergraduate, graduate and contract workers left unable to work at full capacity, Washington University administrators have committed to addressing their financial needs for the rest of the semester.

Despite most of campus closing, WU plans to financially compensate student and contract workers.

All undergraduate students without an approved late stay request moved out by March 15, meaning that most students with on-campus employment were unable to continue working. Graduate students faced a different situation since many live near the University and are required to be physically present on campus for their research.

Chancellor Martin’s initial email announcing the housing closures and the shift to online instruction advised students concerned with a potential loss of income to contact Student Financial Services (SFS) for assistance but did not elaborate on what exactly that assistance would entail.

SFS Director Mike Runiewicz said that his office’s plan to address the needs of student workers should be finalized by early next week, emphasizing the importance of taking the time to make sure all the details are right.

“If a student is missing his or her shift this coming Monday, the soonest that student would be able to be paid would be the following Friday,” Runiewicz said. “So two weeks from tomorrow essentially is really the first time students are seeing a financial impact to potential lost wages. And that’s why we want to be intentional, thoughtful, equitable as we’re coming up with a solution and roll out something that we don’t make a mistake on.”

The largest hurdle for SFS to clear is the coordination of their financial aid distribution with the guidelines of the federal work study program, which many student workers participate in. SFS is currently in the process of determining the best way to distribute aid within these guidelines.

“The Department of Ed[ucation] has issued some specific guidance on how financial aid offices can provide additional flexibility in terms of paying federal work study students,” Runiewicz said. “But… there are other [federal] requirements that the University would have to abide by that may limit our ability to help other non work-study students.”

For some students such as sophomore Ryan Holmquist, an employee at the Edison Theater box office, the income from an on-campus job is not a necessity; however, for senior Ashlee Chung, who is a Danforth University Center Student Assistant (DUCSA) and sophomore peer mentor for Deneb STARS, losing these jobs could significantly impact her plans for the future.

“Right now, my parents aren’t funding anything, I’m doing everything out of pocket,” Chung said. “So that would mean my textbooks, airplane flights and all sorts of things here and there… [losing this source of income] would be a burden, especially given the fact that I am a senior and I would probably have to deny or kindly say ‘no’ to a lot of the opportunities that most people at Wash. U. would have.”

Although providing extra financial support for these student-workers will be an option in many cases, the University also hopes to give students opportunities to work from home.

“There are a number of… student employment positions that can be done remotely,” Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Wild said. “We have some positions in the First Year Center, for example, paid positions that we need them to do work planning for Bear Beginnings… We’re not going to be able to do this for everybody, but we’re going to do this for as many students as we can.”

For graduate students, Runiewicz said that the distribution of aid may be more complex due to the fact that although all of their coursework will be conducted online, some graduate students will visit campus in order to do research, while others may not be able to do so.

“Graduate students have a number of different complexities that make it difficult to come up with a one size fits all solution for students,” Runiewicz said. “So ultimately I do think that the solution is going to be a combination of an answer for undergraduate students as well as more individualized treatment for graduate students.”

Marc Blanc, a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department and member of WashU Undergraduate and Graduate Workers’ Union (WUGWU), also brought up a number of different challenges facing graduate candidates, which he hopes the University can help address.

“A lot of grad workers have to travel for research, conferences, workshops,” Blanc said. “And right now the University is not funding any non-essential travel within the U.S. or abroad. So it’s for the best, but it does disrupt a lot of work that needs to be done to advance graduate workers’ careers.”

Blanc also strongly emphasized the importance of ensuring that graduate candidates have access to affordable healthcare while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten public health on campus.

“There are certain departments that have inadequate health care plans where their deductible is more than health insurance actually covers,” Blanc said. “So since graduate workers are still going to be on campus, still going to work here, still exposed to multiple people, it would definitely help to make sure that every graduate worker has adequate health insurance, which is not the case right now.”

To prompt a response from the administration, WUGWU has circulated a petition demanding action from the University on a number of fronts related to public health and support for students impacted by the housing closures and transition to online learning. At the time of publication, the petition had 651 signatures.

According to Blanc, workers at the University who rely on their hourly wages are being overlooked in the administration’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“[The University is] thinking a lot about the parents of students,” Blanc said. “They’re thinking about the average Wash. U. student who is not really thinking about their hourly wage. So I would just like to see a bit more sensitivity toward the difficulty of barring students from working and coming to campus.”

Contract workers who aren’t students also expect to be significantly impacted by the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Chancellor Martin intends to minimize this impact by fully compensating contract workers for the hours that they may miss due to COVID-19.

“This will inevitably affect their hours and it will not affect their pay,” Martin said. “Our intention is for our contract workers, food service workers, housekeepers…we intend to honor the contracts that we have with them. So they may not be needed at particular dining facilities, [because] they may close. But we intend to fully compensate those individuals through the end of their contracts.”

Although WUGWU’s future remains uncertain in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the union remains committed to holding the University accountable to its promises in order to advocate for members of the Washington University community who most need support from the University.

“It’s going to be incredibly hard to build up our membership and then sustain the pressure to achieve recognition as workers, rather than just students, with campus being locked down and with social interactions needing to be cut off,” Trent McDonald, the executive chair of WUGWU said. “That’s not to say that we’re just going to do nothing. We’re working on creating responses, particularly for people that are going to be food insecure and needing housing in the short term before making it home.”

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