Student activists create petition, list of demands for ‘holistic’ U.Va. COVID-19 response

The petition calls for the dedication of financial resources and commitment to various accommodations to support the needs of students and community members

ns-newcombstudentwork-aguernamayeh
The petition calls on the University to guarantee wages to non-Federal Work Study student workers. Ariana Gueranmayeh | Cavalier Daily

Nearly 800 people have signed a petition released March 17 by student activists at the University calling upon President Jim Ryan and the University administration to address and support the needs of students and community members through the dedication of financial resources and commitment to various accommodations. 

The petition enumerated twelve demands in light of recent operational changes at the University, including paid sick leave for non-student workers, continued wages for student workers who are not part of the Federal Work Study program and the provision of an option for students to make their courses pass/fail — a change the University announced March 18. The petition also calls for the provision of housing options for housing-insecure community members and students, the postponement — rather than cancellation or substitution — of Final Exercises for the Class of 2020 and an official University-funded mutual aid fund.

Among the signatories of the petition are undergraduate and graduate students, professors, local politicians, University staff members and Charlottesville residents.  The petition was written by fourth-year College students Abasenia Joie Asuquo, Ivan Khvatik, Johanna Moncada Sosa, Hannah Russell-Hunter and Diana Tinta, third-year College students Paola Covarrubias, Ashley Grullon and JaVori Warren, second-year College students Juan Zazueta and Caro Campos and first-year College student Zyahna Bryant.

Some of the demands have been addressed by updates from University administrators since the petition first began circulating. An earlier version of the petition indicated that a meaningful response to each of the demands was expected by March 23.

“As President Ryan and Provost Magill said in their latest message to the University community last week, this is an unprecedented and rapidly changing situation and we continue to work through a number of complex issues,” said Wes Hester, director of media relations and deputy University spokesperson, when asked if the University was planning to release a statement in response to the petition. “As we do so, we will continue to provide updates and post the latest information available on our Coronavirus website.”

The petition’s demands include the following selected for elaboration.

“Provide Non-Student Workers PAID Sick Leave”

Ryan and Provost Liz Magill announced that all employees would continue to receive compensation and benefits “for the foreseeable future” in an email to the University community March 17. The same assurances were not extended to contracted workers, such as Aramark food service workers.

Faculty and staff of the University are expected to continue work remotely if possible, but the University has not made a statement regarding the provision of additional paid sick leave for workers. The petition demands that all University workers be paid while the University holds classes online, calling for the University to support its workforce and to “guarantee paid sick leave and subsidize the cost of living while workers may be unable to attend their workplace.”

In January 2020, the University enacted a $15 minimum wage increase. However, the initial announcement of the wage increase in March 2019 included only full-time employees eligible for benefits. The plan was expanded later in October to also include contracted workers at the University.

“Considering that the UVA administration negotiated with Aramark and other contractors to increase the wage to $15 in exchange for cutting hours and health care benefits, the University must support UVA’s workforce — both direct and contracted,” the petition states.

Ryan and Magill stated in their email March 17 that the University is currently in “active conversations” with its contractors and that an update is forthcoming. The petition was updated March 18 with reports of Aramark effectively laying off workers by dismissing workers indefinitely and without pay for lost workdays.

The Cavalier Daily contacted Aramark for comment after having spoken with multiple workers who confirmed that many contracted workers have been effectively or officially laid off. Aramark neither confirmed nor denied the layoffs were happening. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on all of us, creating personal hardship and business interruption around the world,” Karen Cutler, vice president of Aramark communications and public affairs, said. “I can assure you that we greatly respect and value our associates, and their safety and well-being is a top priority.”

“Ensure Non-Federal Work-Study Student Workers Continue Receiving Wages”

In a previous email correspondence with The Cavalier Daily, Hester indicated that student workers comprise almost 25 percent of the University’s workforce. Although the University announced that all students in the Federal Work-Study program — even if unable to work remotely — will continue to receive wages, the same guarantee of wages was not made for non-FWS and contracted student workers. While FWS workers are allotted a certain number of hours of work at the beginning of each semester, and those hours worked are a component of a student’s financial aid package, non-FWS workers are not guaranteed a certain number of hours.

The petition demands that “all UVA employees, including part-time and student workers, regardless of the circumstances, continue to receive their paychecks from the University — whether they can work remotely or not.”

Fourth-year College student Ivan Khvatik — one of the petition’s co-writers and a non-FWS student worker as a University Transit System bus driver — effectively lost his job Monday.

“It’s kind of insulting considering that we [student workers] are already paid less than part-time and full-time employees for doing the same work, and now the University [has] just tossed us aside,” Khvatik wrote to The Cavalier Daily. “I have no idea how I’m paying for food, rent and bills going forward.”

In Virginia, student employment rates begin at $7.25 per hour, and the minimum wage increase enacted by the University in January 2020 did not include student workers.

Ryan and Magill’s March 17 email stated that supervisors have “received a list of emergency financial resources available to displaced student employees” faced with financial hardship as a result of being unable to work. However, according to Khvatik, student bus drivers have not received direction to any such resources, and links to resources are only made available if requested.

The website for one such resource, the Student Life and Leadership fund — “a ‘rainy day’ fund administered by the University’s Division of Student Affairs to help students with unexpected expenses” — includes a link for donation, with no instructions detailing how to apply for the fund.

“My direct manager really cares about her workers and is doing everything she can and more,” Khvatik said. “The issue lies solely with the administration.”

“Provide a Prorated Rebate or Refund for On-Grounds Housing, Meal Plans, Tuition, and Fees”

Ryan and Magill announced in their email March 17 that prorated credits or refunds would be provided for on-Grounds housing and University dining contracts. All meal plans were automatically canceled beginning March 22 except for those for students who indicated that they would like their meal plan to remain active, and, with the recent closure of Newcomb Hall, the U.Va. Community Food Pantry announced its closure March 20.

With classes now being online and students facing various hardships, the petition argues that “all students are losing … resources and services that they paid for, many of which are inaccessible at home,” such as dining halls, in-person teaching, access to buildings, counseling, WiFi and student activities. The petition demands that students receive a prorated credit or refund on housing, meal plans and tuition and fees. 

“Provide Students the Option to Choose ‘Pass/Fail’ for Each of Their Courses”

Over 5,000 people had signed a separate petition calling for the University to make pass/fail an option for spring 2020 classes before Magill announced in an email March 18 that undergraduate students would have the option to be graded for credit/no credit in lieu of receiving a letter grade. 

Students will have until the last day of spring semester classes, April 28, to decide if they would like to receive a letter grade that would be factored into their grade point average. Courses taken for credit/no credit will count toward curricular, major and graduation requirements, and a note will be included on students’ transcripts that the option was created in the “midst of an extraordinary crisis and as part of the University’s effort to manage the transition to online instruction.” 

Another petition calling for Spring 2020 final exams to be made optional began circulating March 20 and has since accumulated over 900 signatures.

“Provide Housing Options for Housing-Insecure Community Members and Students”

With most students having left on-Grounds housing to return home, and accounting for the University’s contributions to the housing crisis in Charlottesville, the petition calls upon the University to allow community members access to empty residence halls and University-owned housing in order to alleviate the shortage of low-income housing in the community. 

In August 2018, the University housed state law enforcement officers in the Lambeth Field Residence area on-Grounds in anticipation of activities related to the anniversary of the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville of August 2017. The petition argues that, given that the University has previously housed non-University students in an emergency situation, “actual community members who are experiencing housing insecurity should be granted access to shelter as well.”

Additionally, the petition argues that, because many have become unemployed and are consequently unable to pay rent during this time of crisis, the University should advocate for a city-wide rent freeze. According to the Virginia Chief Workforce Development office, unemployment claims in Virginia spiked March 19 with more than 16,000 filed.

A report titled “The Impact of Racism on Affordable Housing in Charlottesville” released March 12 by the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition stated that more than 3,300 households in the city of Charlottesville have unmet housing needs. A survey conducted by the Legal Aid Justice Center for the report found vast disparities along racial lines regarding income, rates of displacement, perceptions of gentrification and housing affordability.

“With workers in Charlottesville receiving too little pay and the price of housing skyrocketing, affordable and decent housing remains out of reach for many residents, especially for Black communities,” the report states.

The report calls for actions to “hold the University accountable” and recommends various strategies that the University “could use to combat the adverse impacts by [the University] on the City.” Among those strategies are the conduction of a self-assessment of the University’s real estate holdings — after which the University should “partner with the City to calculate how much it would pay in taxes on such properties if it were not tax-exempt, and then negotiate an annual donation to cover these cost” — and a pilot program through which the University would contribute to the Charlottesville Albemarle Housing Fund.

“Postpone Final Exercises for the Class of 2020”

Ryan announced in his email March 17 that Final Exercises would be canceled “as currently planned” and that “creative alternatives” were in development, prompting emotional responses from many fourth-year students on social media. A separate petition for postponement, in lieu of cancellation or substitution, began circulating the night of March 17 and garnered nearly 5,000 supporters before Ryan clarified in a post on social media midday March 18 that one of the alternatives being considered is postponement. An announcement regarding the University’s decision and updated plans is reportedly forthcoming. 

“Establish an Official Mutual Aid Fund for Students and Low-wage Workers with Unexpected Expenses”

Two weeks ago, Student Council launched Hoos Helping Hoos — a mutual aid network through which donors can contribute and students in need can request non-monetary and monetary resources. The network has raised over $13,600 as of Wednesday morning. Student Council estimates another $6,800 will be needed to meet 100 percent of student need.

So far, the University has offered financial support to students during the coronavirus pandemic in the form of emergency travel assistance to students on financial aid and funds for students in need of a computer or internet access. The petition calls upon the University to establish and contribute funds to an official mutual aid fund. 

“It is not only the duty of class privileged individuals to donate to this mutual aid fund but also a responsibility from the university to fund this initiative given its massive endowment,” the petition says. “Students should not have to carry all of the weight of supporting each other when the university has the institutional power and capacity to ensure that its students and staff are taken care of.”

The Charlottesville community has come together to create mutual aid funds, including one organized by the Charlottesville Community Cares Team, Congregate Charlottesville and the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation.

“Provide the option to withdraw without penalty and reimburse students partial tuition” 

In light of students “experiencing heightened stress and impacts on their mental health as they struggle to process drastic changes to their lives and fear for their families and themselves,” the petition demands the provision of an option for students to withdraw from the current semester without incurring a W notation on their transcript and for subsequent partial tuition reimbursements. 

The University did extend the withdrawal deadline from March 16 to March 19, but students who withdrew would still receive a W notation on their transcript under the current system.  

Other demands

The remaining four demands of the petition are accommodations and extended assignment deadlines for work during the transition to virtual instruction, the provision of storage options for students, offering fourth-year students the option to stay an extra semester and the development of a student liaison committee to “include students in the decision-making process regarding COVID-19 responses that impact students.”

Mackenzie Williams contributed reporting to this article. 

Correction: This article has been updated to include second-year College student Caro Campos and third-year College student Paola Covarrubias as petition authors. 

related stories