Residential Life ‘not in a financial position’ to provide prorated refunds for residential advisors seeking compensation for lost wages

| News Editor

Following Washington University’s decision to suspend on-campus instruction on March 11, all residential advisors received an email notifying that their employment was terminated and their remaining compensation for the spring semester, which includes housing and meal points, would be canceled. RAs were given until March 15 to vacate their on-campus housing and were asked to cease communication with their residents.

Photo by Grace Bruton

Soon after this announcement, senior Joel Anderson along with two other RAs began circulating a petition for all RAs to be compensated for the cost of their residential housing and meal plans that they would have otherwise received, citing the variety of hardships that the University’s decision created for the RA community. At the time of publication, the petition has 1581 signatures.

Despite the petition’s popularity, the Office of Residential Life has stated that providing prorated refunds to all RAs is not possible, but remains open to finding other solutions.

Although Anderson understands that the University’s budget is tight, he said they decided to create the petition because the RA community deserves the administration’s support.

“Everyone right now is making sacrifices,” Anderson said. “Students are sacrificing their spring semester, graduating seniors are sacrificing their commencement, people are sacrificing job opportunities. But I know for many members of our community, there’s a line in the sand that needs to be drawn and asking your students to move out of their housing and face food and housing insecurity, whether they’re at home or somewhere else, is really not a sacrifice that should be made.”

When the RAs lost their jobs on March 11, they were asked to cease communication with their residents and forward all communication to their Residential College Directors. However, the results of a survey sent out by Anderson to the RA community show that out of the 51 RAs who responded, only one had actually ceased communication.

“We feel that the relationship between resident advisors and the residents has really kind of been undercut,” Anderson said. “We were told we’re free from all obligations of being an RA, but really severing those ties is just, it’s not as simple as it sounds…Nearly every person we’ve talked to has continued providing some sort of support or referral to a campus resource to residents, free of any obligation or payment.”

Anderson’s survey of the RA community, which also asked individuals to describe how losing their RA benefits had affected their lives, revealed stories of food insecurity, difficulty finding housing, mental health concerns and financial struggles. 28 of the 51 RAs surveyed indicated that they had experienced difficulties in their living situation since leaving campus.

“This is about more than just a handful of RAs looking to receive an additional refund or something like that,” Anderson said. “This is really about real lived experiences of RAs that have suffered greatly because of the impact of not receiving any sort of severance package or compensation from the University.”

Due to financial limitations, the Office of Residential Life plans to target its assistance to those most in need, instead of providing the more expensive blanket solution of prorated refunds to all RAs. In an email sent to the RA community on April 17, Executive Director of Residential Life Kawanna Leggett and Associate Director of Residential Life Molly Pierson highlighted efforts that the University had already taken to support students in need, including $150,000 in emergency grant funding for travel costs, lost wages and other expenses.

Leggett and Pierson reported that 20 RAs had been allowed to remain on campus due to extenuating circumstances. They also pointed out that RAs with on-campus jobs would be compensated for the rest of the semester and that the University’s Crisis Response Fund could provide additional support when necessary.

Additionally, Leggett and Pierson pledged to work with RAs to advocate for additional support from Student Financial Services.

“The Office of Residential Life is currently evaluating the pool of RAs who returned home instead of remaining on campus to see if any of you would have qualified for additional grant support if you had been working other part-time jobs on campus,” Leggett and Pierson wrote. “The Office of Residential Life will work with these students and Student Financial Services to calculate additional grant support as needed to be consistent and fair with how other student situations were supported.”

However, the bottom line of Residential Life’s communication was that prorated refunds for all RAs were not on the table.

“The University will not be able to provide compensation for all RAs for the period that they would have been working had the University stayed open for in-person instruction,” Leggett and Pierson wrote. “We are very sorry that our semester was cut short, and we greatly appreciate the leadership you provided as an RA this year.”

Shortly after receiving this news, Student Union Senate unanimously passed a resolution in support of fair compensation for RAs. Although full prorated refunds are no longer on the table, Senator junior Sophie Scott said she plans to continue to advocate for the best possible solution for the RA community. The RAs who organized the petition are also in the process of scheduling face-to-face meetings with administrators to discuss their concerns.

“In the resolution, we’re asking for compensation equal to the prorated amount of the cost of their housing,” Scott said. “And they’ve said explicitly [that] we cannot financially meet this request. But through our back and forth, we plan to have a meeting with [Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students] Rob [Wild] and Kawanna [Leggett] to work through: ‘Can we meet in the middle? Is there some sort of compensation that we could give?’”

The results of Anderson’s survey indicate that although prorated refunds for housing and meal plans are the preferred solution, many RAs would be willing to accept whatever the University can give.

“We did inform RAs that we were prepared to potentially have to negotiate and for ResLife to outright reject that prorated amount of housing and meal plans,” Anderson said. “We received a variety of responses, but a lot of people were honestly at a point where they just kind of said that at this point anything would help.”

SU’s resolution also demands that “no current RA or future RA applicant who advocates for themselves or their peers should face any retaliation in contract offers for returning as RAs in future semesters.”

In order to address this concern, Wild communicated to SU that no RA would face any backlash for signing or supporting the petition in any way.

Despite the less than ideal response from Residential Life, Anderson is proud about how the RA community came together in a time of crisis.

“We are pretty awestruck by how much support has been put behind us already and how many people have been leaving incredibly genuine and heartfelt comments about the RA community on the petition,” Anderson said. “It’s just been really great to see.”

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