Despite compensation efforts, work-study communication falters


Daily file photo by Jeffrey Wang

The Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid and the Work-Study Office, both located at 1801 Hinman Ave. Northwestern has attempted to adhere to federal guidelines to compensate work-study students for missed wages, but some students have fallen through the cracks.

Andrea Bian, Print Managing Editor

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a variety of stressors for students. For those with work-study jobs, a potential loss of multiple months of compensation was one of those concerns, which were exacerbated by delayed communication.

An April 1 email from the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid said students could only be compensated for the same amount of hours they worked Winter Quarter and that they would be notified the next week of the compensation amount for which they’re eligible. The email came days before the April 6 announcement that the entirety of Spring Quarter would be remote. Per federal guidelines, students can be compensated only for hours “reasonably expected to be worked,” the email read.

Medill senior Brooke Fowler is an advertising sales representative for The Daily at Students Publishing Co. Inc. Following the University’s announcement of remote classes for the beginning of Spring Quarter, Fowler did not receive any information concerning her job for several weeks. She contacted her employer, who told her they didn’t know of any further information.

After seeing a friend post on Twitter about the email, Fowler realized she’d never received it. She was on Journalism Residency during Winter Quarter and did not work any work-study hours.

“I immediately panicked,” Fowler said.

After contacting the work-study office and receiving a link to an appeals form, Fowler was ultimately told that she’ll be compensated for the same amount of hours she had worked in Fall Quarter, even though she was scheduled to work three more hours a week in Spring Quarter than she worked during the fall.

A University spokesperson said the email was sent to work-study students who were determined eligible to work based on whether they worked Winter Quarter. Because Fowler was off campus during Winter Quarter, she did not receive communication initiated by administration — even though she was participating in a required, credit-bearing program.

According to Federal Student Aid guidelines, initially released on March 5, universities can pay Federal Work-Study students for the “hours the students were scheduled to work, but could not work as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak,” provided that institutions continue to compensate essential staff and meet institutional wage requirements for the FWS program.

Despite these guidelines, compensation strategies have varied across universities. New York University announced it would pay all student workers, work-study or non-work-study, for the remainder of the semester, regardless of whether they were able to work remotely.

Northwestern did not guarantee any pay for non-FWS student workers. A University spokesperson told The Daily in an email that all students, including non-FWS workers, are encouraged to apply for posted jobs, which have been deemed essential and can be done remotely.

Meanwhile, at the University of Chicago, students unable to work remotely would be paid for six weeks based on projected hours as dictated by supervisors, according to the school’s financial aid website.

When determining hours “reasonably expected to be worked,” Northwestern’s use of Winter Quarter hours rather than projected or scheduled hours differs from other institutions — which can lead to a situation like Fowler’s, whose earnings from the fall are significantly less than the earnings she would’ve received in the spring.

Additionally, federal guidelines suggested universities pay students only up to their regular work-study allotment. Some students in a typical quarter work up to the allotment and continue to work for their employer as a regular employee, earning more funds. Because many students have already reached their allotment, the University will not compensate them for any additional hours they work past it, even if they’re scheduled to work those hours.

On Tuesday morning, the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid sent an email to work-study students notifying them of an adjustment to their award. The document linked in the email informs students that their projected award amount for Spring Quarter will be issued in one lump sum rather than biweekly paychecks.

“This work-study refund is part of your financial support for the entire spring quarter,” the document read. “Ideally, your incoming funds are greater than your expenses. If not, you need to make some decisions, to the extent possible, about prioritizing your expenses.”

Also included in the email was a suggested budget table including lines for “support from family” and “other sources of income.” Some students found the table assumptive and inconsiderate of differing financial support systems.

While situations and responses to Northwestern’s specific compensation policy vary, students struggled with a lack of communication in an unprecedented pandemic environment.

Tim Lin, a Weinberg sophomore working as a clerical aide in the Medill School of Journalism, said he felt pressure to go into work during finals week — when many students had already departed campus — due to silence from the University regarding the future of his work-study job.

“I needed the income,” Lin said.

Lin emphasized his gratitude for Spring Quarter compensation. But he went into work, he said, as a result of his uncertainty at the time surrounding whether he’d be paid for the next several weeks of remote classes.

Fowler, whose current situation is far from what she pictured for her Spring Quarter, acknowledged she doesn’t know a perfect solution that would fairly compensate all student workers.

However, the University didn’t tell her why she never received the April 1 email.

“I wish there would’ve been more communication from the University,” Fowler said. “Finding out that I may not get paid for work-study through Twitter is not the preferred method.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @andreabian_

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