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Risking Reopening

UMass Student residence workers who demanded safe reopening laid off last minute

By Klara Ingersoll 

The University of Massachusetts decided to fire 93% of its Resident Advisors and Peer Mentors just one business day before move-in. The move came after the union was publicly critical of the university’s reopening plan, citing risks posed by the coronavirus for student workers and town residents. 

When the university announced it was welcoming back 8,000 students to Amherst, town residents and student workers were very concerned about the potential for COVID-19 to spread. Resident Advisors (RA’s) and Peer Mentors (PM’s) Union called the plan “suicidal,” Amherst’s town manager Paul Glockeman wrote a scathing open letter, and over 1,000 community members signed a petition warning that large numbers of students returning to Amherst would threaten residents’ lives.

The University agreed to scale back the number of returning students and implemented new precautions in its latest reopening plan, including reaching an agreement with the union to provide student residence workers with the option to work remotely, hazard pay, PPE, and ventilation. 

Following these agreements, the university turned around and fired 93% of the residence workers. Where there were about 370 RAs and PMs who had expected to work this Fall semester, now there are only 36 students employed with this position on campus. The last minute lay-offs sent shockwaves through the community, as many students were left without employment and some students without housing options for the coming academic year. Students faced housing insecurity for different reasons, such as having immunocompromised family members, lack of the internet access (according to NEPM), or not having a home to return to. 

“The university left me hanging on such a short notice. Some students can go back to their parents’ places, but I had nowhere else to go,” Julia Oktay, a Resident Assistant who lost her job in early August told The Shoestring. Oktay said that she has spoken with other students who share her experience, but that due to the stigma around homelessness, this conversation is not as transparent. “Because we are asked during applications, I know the university knows that many of us self-supporting, independent students rely on the RA income to pay our rents and put food on the table. The university did not acknowledge our situations in their decision to let us all go. It’s already such a hard time to find a job, I know that this is affecting many student workers’ livelihoods,” said Oktay.  

Following the widespread last minute lay-offs, student workers rapidly organized a response, putting on their masks and grabbing their megaphones and even tents. Oktay shared her experience and others spoke about the need to ensure all members of the university’s community’s safety during this pandemic at “Camp New Normal,” a student-led protest on University Chancellor Kumble Subaswammy’s lawn on August 12th and 13th. 

“UMass informed us they will not be honoring this part of our contract, and that no workers deserved hazard pay because the coronavirus is the new normal. We wanted to show Subaswammy that the New Normal means treating workers with dignity and respect. We were met with UMass Police who threatened to issue a trespass order on us, which would ban individual students from campus for two years. UMass really wants to silence student workers. But, we aren’t going to stop fighting,” said President of the RA/PM Union James Cordero. 

Following student actions, the university has since agreed to let former RA’s and PM’s live on campus for the upcoming year at no cost. The RA / PM Union is in the process of filing a grievance because it believes that UMass violated other parts of their contract, which provide students workers access to alternative work assignments and laid off RAs and PMs full compensation. 

Klara Ingersoll is an organizer and journalist who is interested in restorative justice. She is pursuing an independent BA in “Multimedia Storytelling for Social Change” at UMass Amherst. Photo Credit: RAPMU Media Team, Stephanie Higgins and Aradhna Johnson.

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