A Job to Die For

By Nat Luftman, Alice Troop, and James Cordero

Being a Residential Assistant (RA) or a Peer Mentor (PM) at UMass Amherst is a true honor. In our roles as the Residential Life staff who support students living on campus, we have built meaningful relationships with dozens of residents and have fostered various living-learning communities. Thanks to our status as unionized workers, we are able to collectively bargain for dignified working conditions and wages. 

During this challenging time, we want to be clear: This job is not worth dying for, and that is exactly what UMass is asking for us to do, in its reopening plan. 

The UMass reopening plan allows any student who has a housing reservation to choose to return, despite most of their courses being online. At a Residential Life forum on July 9, 2020, it was revealed that more than 50% of the residential population chose to return. As of now, Residential Life is calling for all 500 RAs and PMs to return to campus. 

RAs and PMs will be expected to police students to enforce the “UMass Agreement,” which outlines strict social distancing policies. However, it is impossible for an RA or a PM to safely enforce these guidelines without risking themselves to COVID-19 exposure. Moreover, this is an unprecedented workload increase for students who have to balance their classes along with their jobs on campus. 

Finally, how can RAs or PMs enforce this agreement? What if residents refuse to comply? Calling UMPD won’t help–policing is rooted in white supremacist violence, and you can’t shoot COVID-19. 

In addition to these unrealistic expectations, UMass refuses to offer RAs or PMs a hazard pay. Let alone, allow them the option to work remotely and escape the petri dish that the campus is about to become.

This reopening plan is suicidal. 

Approximately six or seven thousand students will be living in close quarters, during a pandemic, while COVID-19 cases are on track to reach 100,000 new cases per day. Even in Massachusetts, the Rt (the rate of infection spread) for COVID-19 has just risen to 1.01, meaning community spread has returned, similar to circumstances in California and Flordia. 

This reopening will increase the spread of the disease and jeopardize the lives of a large number of students, campus staff, and community members. 

With COVID surging, some universities are already reversing their foolish reopening plans. A student at Penn State has already died. If UMass continues this course, a COVID-19 outbreak is bound to occur, and RAs and PMs will be caught in the middle of it.

This photo published on Reddit, can be viewed as an apt description of the UMass Amherst reopening plan for the Fall 2020 semester.

This plan is a gimmick meant to ensure that UMass receives housing and meal plan payments to make up for the thousands of dollars that they lost this Spring. Any pretense that this plan adequately accommodates student safety is irrational magical thinking. RAs and PMs are not pandemic police.

Those who return to campus to work should be given hazard pay (either increased wages or free housing on top of their wages), while those who want to work remotely should be able to do so.

Our federal government has gone to great lengths to normalize mass death and sickness. As the Co-Chairs of the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union, we refuse to normalize putting the University’s profit over student lives. We demand that RAs and PMs are given the option to work remotely, that those who work on-site are given hazard pay, and that UMass seriously consider reversing a reopening plan that will only worsen this pandemic. 

In Solidarity,

Nat Luftman, Alice Troop, and James Cordero
The authors of this article can be reached at the following: Nat Luftman (nluftman@uaw2322.org), Alice Troop (alice@uaw2322.org), and James Cordero (jcordero@uaw2322.org).

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