Pandemic heightens problems between resident advisers and University Housing

Tuesday, September 8, 2020 - 2:02pm

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Design by Michelle Fan

As resident advisers prepare to strike in protest of the University of Michigan’s response to COVID-19, some members of Residential Staff say the pandemic has forced long-time issues between University Housing and the student staff into the open.

ResStaff, or the students who work for University Housing, are calling for stronger communication and increased COVID-19 protections. Several ResStaff workers told The Daily they have privately complained for years about a disconnect between University Housing and the students who work for them, but say the pandemic has made the situation even more urgent. 

RAs are calling to attention the disconnect between University Housing, which makes policy regarding COVID-19, and members of ResStaff, who implement it. 

RAs’ contract includes a clause stating they are not allowed to publicly disagree with University Housing policies. Because of this, two current RAs and a student who quit the position from COVID-19 concerns have requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the University. They will be referred to as Olivia, Emily and Noah, respectively. 

Personal Protective Equipment and Enforcement

Custodians have been working since early July to prepare rooms for students, Daniel Henne, director of communications, marketing and design for Student Life, wrote in an email to The Daily. Custodial staff clean the bathrooms two times a day and ensure hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are readily available, Henne said.

But many RAs said that these protective measures were not enough for buildings filled with new students from different states, including some COVID-19 hotspots. They pointed to Cornell University, where RAs asked for plexiglass dividers between sinks and additional sanitation near heavily congested areas, like elevators.

University Housing said they would not put up plexiglass dividers between sinks, stating the decision was consistent with other campus buildings. Amir Baghdadchi, Senior Associate Director of Michigan Housing, said the University has taken other precautionary measures, like placing social distancing signs in bathrooms and installing paper towel dispensers throughout campus. 

RAs have also requested additional personal protective equipment for move-in duties, mailroom services and other tasks requiring in-person contact. 

On Aug. 23, more than 80 resident advisers drafted an open letter to University Housing, asking for more resources to protect against COVID-19. They said University Housing was not responsive to their demands, and they felt scared for their safety. More than 750 people signed their open letter expressing support for the RAs’ demands.

After the letter was sent, University Housing scheduled two town halls with the RAs in an effort to strengthen communication. During the first town hall, many RAs asked University Housing to address each of their concerns in the open letter through a line-by-line response. University Housing complied and sent an edited version of the letter, which was reviewed by The Daily, addressing each of their demands on Aug. 27. In addition, Housing said they had ordered face shields and each ResStaff member would also receive an additional COVID-19 safety kit. 

Despite the order for more personal protective equipment, some RAs told The Daily they do not feel well-equipped to handle their other tasks. Noah said one of the reasons he quit was because of a modification to Community Center responsibilities. The CC is a lobby-like area generally situated in a high-traffic location in a dorm where residents can ask ResStaff members questions. 

Previously, each staff member only had to work in their residence hall’s CC. But now, ResStaff members might be required to work in CCs outside of their residence hall. Noah argued this new requirement was unsafe.

Additionally, Noah said he didn’t feel comfortable enforcing social distancing policies, since they could jeopardize his health. The University requires residents to maintain health precautions outlined in Community Living at the University at Michigan (CLAM), the handbook all students living in residence halls must abide by.

“I didn’t feel safe being the person to break up a dorm party in the middle of the pandemic,” Noah said. “I think putting that responsibility on other students, especially students who are dependent on their jobs for housing, is just not a good solution.”

In response to the pandemic, the guest policy in dorms has been updated. An Aug. 26 email from University Housing leadership obtained by The Daily states that outside guests, or people living outside of one’s dorm, are not permitted in residence halls, but residents living in the same dorm are allowed to visit each other. 

Once the “no guest policy” took effect after residents move into their dorms, RAs were instructed to tell outsiders that they are in violation of the CLAM. Emily said it will be difficult to differentiate who is an outside guest and who lives in a different part of the dorm. 

Baghdadchi wrote in an email to The Daily that staff has a shared responsibility for “cultivating a culture of care.” He wrote that the hall director — the leader of each residential building — is responsible for holding students to community standards. University Housing’s conduct office will manage students who repeatedly break them.

Emily said there is no way to enforce the policy. Currently, the only repercussion from breaking this rule is equivalent to violating the CLAM: the case is forwarded to Housing Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution for the staff to review. 

“There’s really no teeth to this policy,” Emily said. “Yes, on paper it sounds good … but in terms of enforcement, as an RA, we’re really relying on a bluff.”

Approximately two weeks after the town halls, some RAs announced plans to strike claiming no concrete action has been taken. They also added new demands including hazard pay, a statement of non-retaliation should they form a union, and the inclusion of “real consequences” should a student break social distancing policies. 

In an email to ResStaff sent Wednesday night, Rick Gibson, director of Michigan Housing, responded to some of the RA’s demands. He began the letter by acknowledging ResStaff’s need for action and thanked ResStaff members for their commitment to public safety and change.

He listed various efforts Housing has made to adapt to the RAs complaints, noting that under the University’s surveillance testing program, RAs will receive priority status. He said because compensation for ResStaff primarily comes in the form of room and board, the University would not provide hazard pay.  

In his email to ResStaff, Gibson also elaborated on consequences for residents who fail to abide by community guidelines, noting that follow up measures may include contract termination.

“Given the gravity of COVID-19, that means contract termination may be appropriate after one or two serious violations,” Gibson wrote.

Communication Disconnect

The three RAs also expressed frustration and discontent with the lack of communication between Housing and ResStaff. 

Noah said the University did not let ResStaff know if they would still have a job or housing in the fall until he received his letter of appointment the first week of August. 

“That was really stressful as a student who depends on them for housing,” Noah said. 

Olivia said she’s often put into a difficult situation when the first time she hears about housing updates is through a general email that was also sent to residents. It can be difficult to guide residents and make them feel secure when RAs have the same questions, Olivia said.

To help increase communication between RAs and Housing, the letter sent to University Administration asked for the creation of a student liaison elected by ResStaff members to advocate for their concerns and inform them of updated plans and policies.  

Emily said the liaison will help RAs feel more heard. 

“As staff members, we are consistently asked to be flexible and adaptive to our community needs,” Emily said. “However, when we ask for changes or attempt to voice our concerns with policies and how they’re being implemented, we are told that we should not do that.” 

University Housing has not yet addressed the demand for a student liaison.

With limited channels to voice concerns, both current and former RAs said there is a disconnect between policy and implementation. 

According to alum Deryl Long, this disconnect is not new. During her time as an RA from 2018-19, she said she was instructed by leadership to call DPSS when mental health incidents arose. She said many of the RAs who experienced mental health crises firmly believed engaging the police would worsen the situation, and RAs are put in difficult situations when determining if a situation needed the police. 

“If you were the RA on duty and this kind of situation was unfolding, you had to decide whether or not you were going to involve the police, which is a terrible idea, obviously,” Long said. “Or you had to risk your job security, housing security and food security, to go around the procedure and just deal with the situation yourself.”

Other members of the campus community have taken issue with the University’s ties to law enforcement. Similar to the RAs, The Graduate Employees’ Organization, which represents more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants, announced a strike on Monday in protest of the University’s reopening plans. One of GEO’s demands was cutting funding to the Division of Public Safety and Security and reducing law enforcement’s presence on campus. 

Long also recalled the job taking a large toll on her and other RAs’ mental health, especially because they weren’t trained mental health professionals but were often put in serious situations. 

This policy has been confirmed by several current RAs and is still active. 

Fear of Retaliation

RAs have told The Daily they are concerned about losing their jobs for speaking out.

Each ResStaff member has to sign a letter of appointment saying they must uphold all expectations of the role. Failure to meet the expectations and duties outlined may result in dismissal from the role, according to the LOA.

The letter contains a non-disparagement clause that says ResStaff cannot publicly criticize any University Housing policies. Student staff members who disagree with any policies are encouraged to ask their supervisor questions, but they should continue to enforce all policies and “show public support” for them.

The Daily could not confirm if an RA has been fired for criticizing Housing or its policies, however many RAs have said they are fearful of breaking their contract. As a result, Olivia said many students on ResStaff did not want to voice their concerns publicly.

“I’ve been really afraid there will be consequences for me even though … (I just want to) ensure we’re actually safe,” Olivia said. “The fear of retaliation is on all of our minds.”

ResStaff requested the University administration to write a statement of non-retaliation, as one of the demands sent in a letter to University Housing on Aug. 23. Since they still had not received a written statement by the Aug. 24 town hall held between RAs and University leadership, over half of the attendees turned off their cameras and signed in anonymously.

Martino Harmon, vice president of Student Life, later sent a written statement promising non-retaliation.

“Expressing concerns about health and safety will not cause any reflection on the individual’s appointment,” the statement read. “Retaliation against an employee who expresses concerns through formal and informal processes is prohibited and is unacceptable.”

Leadership stated they are working on providing a response to action items urging no repercussions for ResStaff members who contract COVID-19 and opportunities for ResStaff to obtain COVID-19 testing throughout the year.

During the second town hall, Amy Gauthier, Deputy Director of University Housing, clarified students will not be fired for testing positive. At the meeting, Gibson also assured that ResStaff members who need to remain living and working in University Housing will be able to continue the role should the University shift to fully virtual classes. 

Emily said she was grateful for the step forward in increasing transparency, but said the town halls cannot represent the solution. 

“We are the eyes and ears of this university in the community day-in, day-out,” Emily said. “When we are facing a public health crisis as large as COVID-19 … I don’t think the administration can afford to do anything less than be responsive and communicate with us.”

In a tweet posted Wednesday afternoon, an account run by RAs organizing the strike described the University as having limited options to respond.

“What are they going to do, fire us? They’ve exhausted the alternates pool and are still understaffed,” the tweet read. “We know the power we hold right now, and we WILL use it.”

Daily Staff Reporter Francesca Duong can be reached at fduong@umich.edu

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