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‘A quintessential example of trying to operate business as usual’: RAs call upon the University to address urgent safety concerns and provide necessary resources amid pandemic

The RAs anonymously submitted a list of ten demands to HRL due to a policy that restricts resident staff from speaking to the press

The group of RAs compiled their concerns, both those relevant to the unique circumstances amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic and also those which have been common grievances among RAs for many years.
The group of RAs compiled their concerns, both those relevant to the unique circumstances amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic and also those which have been common grievances among RAs for many years.

Resident advisors at the University anonymously published a list of demands via Twitter Aug. 28, calling upon Housing and Residence Life to treat resident staffers as “frontline workers” and provide them with the “necessary resources to fulfill our role and protect ourselves, our residents and the community.” 

While the RAs recognize in the letter accompanying their list of demands that the task of creating a “meaningful, safe, and equitable college experience for thousands of students” is “no small feat,” they express concerns about the safety of the University and Charlottesville communities. 

“[W]e worry as U.Va. Resident Staff that all of the restrictions, guidelines and precautionary measures set forth by the University will fall short of their goal to keep all students, faculty and staff safe, a reality that several universities have already faced,” the letter states. “The University will not protect students, faculty, staff and the greater Charlottesville community if they do not follow through with the needs of their workers on the frontlines, including resident staff.”

The letter and list of demands has garnered signatures from 16 organizations and nearly 300 individuals as of press time. Among the signatories are current and former resident staffers, faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, alumni and Charlottesville community members. Of the 300 individuals, approximately 25 percent are current or former resident staffers. 

Student Council was one of the 14 organizations who signed in support, and they passed a resolution Tuesday night in “strong support” of the demands made by the RAs.

The list of demands is divided into two sections — COVID-19 and safety-related demands and equity, inclusion and safety-related demands.

The COVID-19 and safety-related demands include financial compensation and hazard pay, adequate personal protective equipment and risk reduction, revised and clearly articulated policing and COVID-19 guidelines, provisions for food security and housing stability and revised financial aid policies for resident staff. 

The equity, inclusion and safety-related demands include RA representation as student employees in the University’s Human Resources system, the hiring of a third-party anti-racist consultant and professional staff liaison and also co-chair accountability in the form of a democratic election rather than appointment.

The demands were published anonymously because of an HRL policy that restricts resident staffers from speaking to the press. Currently, only the co-chairs of resident staff — who are appointed by HRL and not elected by resident staffers — may publicly speak to the press. 

Fourth-year College student Ja’Mel Reed and fourth-year Engineering student Anna Winter are serving as the 2020-21 HRL co-chairs. Although they signed on in support of the demands, they did so in their capacities as fellow students and not officially as the HRL co-chairs.

In their letter, the RAs requested a response from HRL by Tuesday. However, HRL has yet to release a formal response as of press time.

“Our doors are always open to anyone on Resident Staff to express any concern,” a representative of the Housing and Residence Life team said. “We are working with the student leadership of Resident Staff on a number of things. PPE is one example and is being addressed in a number of ways, including face shields and gloves being available to student staff who want them.”

Alex and Carter — two resident staffers who spearheaded the efforts to create the list of demands — agreed to speak with The Cavalier Daily under the condition of anonymity due to the aforementioned HRL policy. 

According to Alex, the campaign was inspired by the efforts of resident staff at Cornell University, who organized a strike Aug. 20 that ended that day when the Cornell administration agreed to engage in dialogue. Since Aug. 20, resident staff at other colleges — including the University of Michigan, University of Utah and University of Arkansas — have also followed in the footsteps of those at Cornell.

“The inspiration was Cornell and seeing how much support they had garnered [from their community],” Alex said. “I thought we could do something like that if we all worked together.”

Alex and Carter reached out to other resident staffers they thought might be interested in collaborating on this campaign and assembled approximately 20 people to work on creating the letter and list of demands. For the 2019-20 academic year, HRL employed 218 RAs. 

Together, the group of RAs compiled their concerns, both those relevant to the unique circumstances amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic and also those which have been common grievances among RAs for many years. 

After releasing the statement, numerous former and current RAs reached out to Alex and Carter to commend them for mobilizing a group to finally speak out. 

“Things like that [just go to show that] this has been years of people having these same issues with HRL and being scared to voice them because they were scared to lose their job,” Alex said. “How can you be proud of yourself as an institution or a part of the University … and have people who are scared to speak up and voice their concerns?”

Alex and Carter each expressed frustrations with HRL’s blanket restrictions surrounding media coverage, pointing to how the University has previously emphasized the importance of the freedom of speech, particularly in the wake of the white supremacist rallies of Aug. 11 and 12 in Charlottesville.

In then-President Teresa Sullivan’s message to the University community Aug. 13, while condemning the “intimidating and abhorrent behavior intended to strike fear and sow division in our community” of the white supremacists, she also emphasized that “the University supports the First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceable assembly.”

“The University literally protects the freedom of speech of neo-nazis on our campus but does not do the same for its students who are resident staff,” Carter said. “It’s not student self-governance if I can’t be critical of the governance part of it.” 

According to Alex and Carter, RAs were told during their training that only the HRL co-chairs could speak to the media or the press on behalf of HRL or in regards to their individual roles in HRL. The Resident Staff Program Agreement states that “the Chair(s) of the Resident Staff program represents Resident Staff to the University, the press and the public.”

The RAs’ first demand is for the University to provide all HRL employees who are working directly with residents hazard pay compensation for working during a pandemic in the form of a stipend of $2,226.67 per semester, equivalent to one-third of the housing remunerations RAs currently receive. Currently, RAs do not receive any sort of stipend as a part of their compensation.

Their second demand is for “adequate personal protective equipment and risk reduction” in recognition of the fact that the “risks associated with our jobs as RAs and SRs have increased with the possibility of COVID-19 in the dorms.”

Carter emphasized that hazard pay and additional PPE should be provided for not only resident staffers but also facilities management workers “who are also going into the bathrooms and doing a lot of frontline work.” 

Similarly, Alex expressed that the group of RAs who created the list of demands believe that resources should be made accessible to all those who might require them. 

“Our letter touched on the issues of RAs, but we wanted it...to be applicable to everyone that interacts with dorm life or things at U.Va.,” Alex said. “Even in our demand about PPE, we [the RAs] want that extra PPE, but also residents should have access if they do need additional PPE and stuff like that. The [demand] about housing stability is also something that we would want there to be for residents if we went online. It’s bigger than us, and we know that and realize that.”

In their demands, the RAs also draw attention to what they see as the potential establishment of a “culture of actively policing and shaming students” that would run the risk of students not self-reporting symptoms or reaching out to the proper services in fear of retribution and also the risk of marginalized students in particular perhaps feeling over policed, given the fact that Black and Asian students are disproportionately policed on Grounds.

The RAs demand that HRL “acknowledge that Resident Staff cannot constantly police residents to maintain six feet of social distancing in dorms and wear masks in all dorm areas but their rooms.” Additionally, they emphasize that “[c]onstantly needing to be hyper vigilant in our halls is traumatizing and detrimental to the mental and physical stability of RAs and SRs.”

Alex and Carter also believe that the conversation about students policing each other should be expanded to include a critical eye at the University’s relationships with police and policing culture in general. According to them, interactions with police were not discussed during their week-long RA orientation, and, when asked by an RA about concerns regarding potential interactions with police, HRL staff did not have an adequate answer.

“When people brought it up in a different conversation, [HRL staff] were like, “Oh, I haven’t really thought about that,’ or ‘I don’t really have an answer,’” Alex said.

Alex expressed frustrations with what they see as a lack of preparation and thought regarding potential police interactions with students and residential staffers.

“If you really have nothing to say, it means that it hasn’t been in your conversations over the past few months when Black and brown people are dying at the hands of police, and you guys didn’t say anything, make a statement or anything,” Alex said. “The policing is not only within the dorms, but it’s a bigger issue within HRL that there’s such a huge reliance [on police] … and there’s no consideration of how a resident staffer might feel about that situation.”

Carter added that, in light of the University’s “supposed efforts to be more diverse and equitable,” the University and HRL’s “dependence on police for safety is ridiculous.”

Additionally, the RAs’ demands include provisions for augmented meal plans — given that community kitchens in dormitories will be closed — and for financial compensation in the event of students being sent home due to COVID-19 for the fall semester.

When students were sent home in March during the spring semester, those living in on-Grounds housing received prorated refunds for housing and meal plans. However, RAs did not receive any of the value of their dining or housing plans. 

In April, Student Council passed a resolution “calling for equitable compensation” for RAs and was in conversation with HRL and Andy Petters, associate dean of students and director of residence life. Ultimately, however, RAs did not receive any form of compensation for the remainder of the spring semester despite many of them having reported that they were continuing to provide support for their residents after move-out in March. 

Because RAs receive compensation in the form of housing and meal swipes, their remunerations are processed as an outside scholarship in the calculations for their individual financial aid packages, thereby impacting the grants and work-study opportunities for which a student might have typically qualified had they not become an RA. 

Thus, the RAs have included a demand for revised financial aid policies that would not impact the typical financial aid packages that RAs would receive, citing the impact on students of low-income backgrounds. 

“The University often talks about being a best-value school, and their whole strategic investment plan is that they are one of the best-value schools in the nation, but undercompensating RAs to make it a best-value school for residents is not being a best-value school,” Carter said. “Making it a best-value school for first-years but undercompensating RAs is so exploitative.”

Ory Streeter is a 2019 alumnus of the School of Medicine who served as the former area coordinator for HRL from 2008-13 and also as the chair of Honor Committee during the 2018-19 academic year, and he believes that “the importance [of RAs] in this community can not be overstated.”

“I think whenever that body of students — those RAs, that student staff — has concerns, I think it’s important that we as a community take those into consideration and really seriously consider those because I think … they’re the most valuable resource that we have here at this University for supporting students,” Streeter said. “When I read those demands that they have, what I read is that they want to feel heard and that they want to feel supported and safe when they are here doing the job that they do so well.”

As a current resident physician in the Department of Family Medicine at U.Va. Health, Streeter described how he was initially “terrified” to return to work but has felt safe and supported thanks to “sympathetic supervisors and necessary equipment.”

“What I really want is for the RAs to have that same sense of safety and confidence in their work environment so that they can focus on doing the good work that they do and being less concerned about potential exposure to the coronavirus,” Streeter said.

A group of University employees announced last week the formation of a wall-to-wall union and launched their #ActFastUVA campaign, which demands that the University address student, worker and community concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice. Although the union signed on in support of the letter and list of demands created by the RAs, resident advisors are ineligible to join the union because they are not technically University employees and are not on the official payroll of the University. 

During a “Die-In” demonstration Wednesday co-organized by U.Va. Young Democratic Socialists of America, Charlottesville Democratic Socialists of America and the United Campus Workers of Virginia at U.Va., a member of UCWVA read aloud, in solidarity with the RAs’ demands, a statement written anonymously by an RA. 

In order to join the union, the RAs would need to be represented as student employees in the University’s HR system, a demand they have also included in their list. The designation as student employees would grant RAs benefits and protections in the form of set processes for grievance resolution, protection against retaliation and employee relations, which are currently not codified within HRL according to the RAs. 

In reflecting upon their experience last year as a returning RA this year, Alex characterized the relationships and interactions between HRL and resident staff as having been “always [messed] up.”

“I think that [the University] gives us a little bit, and people are [excited], but [the problems are] deeper than that,” Alex said. “[The University gives us] little things that keep people going. I think I and other people feel like now, more than ever, was the time to hit them when they’re vulnerable, and it’s an open wound. They know that they’re messing up.”

As a first-time RA, Carter was excited to become an RA but expressed disappointment with their interactions with HRL thus far.

“I personally don’t feel supported by HRL as a first-time RA,” they said. “I was ready to take on the role of RA, but under a pandemic I would really just expect them to do more. They’re really a quintessential example of trying to operate business as usual.”

Additionally, Carter emphasized that the RAs must prioritize their own health.

“Yes, I care about this work, and I want to protect students, but, ultimately, I’m not a martyr.”

The names in this story have been changed to protect the sources’ privacy due to an HRL policy that restricts resident staffers from speaking to the press.

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