NU Declassified: Unanswered Concerns for Student Workers

For work-study students, COVID-19 brought their income into question. But even after the University’s decision to continue paying work-study students, junior Cameron Cook says she feels that the University is still not doing enough to answer all questions and support all students who rely on the school for a source of income. Other students ran into issues with their work-study allotments, including junior Eliza Gonring.

ANIKA MITTU: The following podcast contains explicit language.

ANIKA MITTU: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Anika Mittu.

MOLLY LUBBERS: I’m Molly Lubbers.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: And I’m Victoria Benefield. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive on Northwestern’s campus. As Northwestern prepared to start Spring Quarter remotely, students who relied on the University’s work-study program to earn an income were left confused about the future of their jobs.

CAMERON COOK: I have a work-study job on campus, and one of the first things I thought about when I heard about all the campus closures was, “Am I gonna be able to work?”

ANIKA MITTU: That was junior Cameron Cook (a former editor for The Daily Northwestern.) Concerned about her job, she looked up the Department of Education’s guidance on work-study funding for students unable to work due to school closure. At the time, the guidance stated that if a school had closed during the middle of the term, then it could continue to pay work-study students. This didn’t apply to Northwestern, which officially closed campus buildings after the end of Winter Quarter and before the start of Spring Quarter. So, Cameron emailed the work-study office.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: The work-study coordinator Anne Horne responded to her on March 16. In the email obtained by The Daily, Horne wrote that work-study students can only be paid for hours worked. She added that Cameron could request some of her Stafford Loan, which she previously rejected, to help with the lost earnings.

CAMERON COOK: I was like, “OK, I’m not going to take that.”

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Dissatisfied with Northwestern’s response, Cameron, along with a friend and a union organizer, drafted a petition. They requested changes that they knew the University was unlikely to make, hoping for a compromise.

CAMERON COOK: The ask was high, and I recognized that. You know, it’s eight hours a week of paid time off, it’s 20 extra hours of paid sick leave for everybody on top of what they have. It’s $15 an hour hazard pay for people who are still working, and this blanket assurance that people who can work remotely will work remotely. But getting something sort of in the middle wouldn’t be the end of the world.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: The petition started gaining traction, and Cameron sent the demands to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, urging him to consider her concerns for student workers. But Schapiro left her with a brief reply.

CAMERON COOK: Morty’s initial response which was “Thank you,” and then, “Be well,” and I was like, “Cool. Thanks. This is a great way to respond to, you know, a bunch of student workers and allies saying, ‘We can’t pay rent, please give us our f–king money.’” And it was bothersome. I didn’t expect much more.

ANIKA MITTU: Cameron wasn’t satisfied. She posted Schapiro’s reply to her email on Twitter. She also kept publicizing the petition, and it ultimately gained around 400 signatures by Wednesday, April 1. The University came out with a statement that same day saying that all work-study students would be paid according to the rate and number of hours they worked Winter Quarter. But Cameron says she feels like the decision is still too vague.

CAMERON COOK: There’s like a lot of uncertainty still over what exactly is going to happen in terms of what if you can work a little bit? The job that I do — which is actually in The Daily’s business office — some of my work can be done remotely, but not all of it can.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Cameron wasn’t the only student worried about how it would be possible for them to complete their job off-campus. One of the others is freshman Ilona Lukina, who works as an administrative assistant in the McCormick Customer Service Center.

ILONA LUKINA: I basically help out with regular administrative tasks like paperwork and filing, and I fill out some forms and update spreadsheets. And then in the last 15 minutes of my shift, I deliver documents all around Tech in the engineering department and surrounding buildings.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: Although some employers are arranging ways for students to work remotely, Ilona knows that she won’t be working next quarter and will instead just get paid the same amount she earned Winter Quarter. Although students like Ilona now know they will be paid for Spring Quarter, they are still left without the opportunities that work provides.

ILONA LUKINA: In high school, I never had a job because I wanted to focus on academics. And I thought that’d be too stressful to also have a job on top of that. But in college, the work-study program really helps me out because it gives me job experience for the first time. And it’s kind of in a more chill, laidback way because it’s a work-study. When I’m done with the things I have to do for the day, I can do homework and it’s a really nice balance between the two while also getting that experience.

MOLLY LUBBERS: On April 1, the email from the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid explained that on the week of April 13, students would be notified of the exact amount they would receive for the quarter. Later, the office said that this money would come in a lump sum for the whole quarter. On April 14, SESP junior Eliza Gonring woke up and went to request her refund of that lump sum.

ELIZA GONRING: I saw that it was $351. And in a typical paycheck, for a two week period, I make about $200. So already, I was like, “That is not the lump sum.” And I asked other people if they had gotten some similar issues. It was really early so only one person responded saying they got the full amount and she suggested that my work-study allotment may have run out and I was like, “Oh, that might be it.” Because that’s happened in the past. So I emailed them and I was like, “Hey, why don’t I have more than this?”

MOLLY LUBBERS: In the response obtained by The Daily, Horne broke down the math. Eliza had earned the majority of her work-study allotment, leaving about $332 remaining. She also was refunded a $19 athletic fee. Horne told Eliza that she couldn’t receive more than her allotment and wrote that she could request to have her rejected loans reinstated.

ELIZA GONRING: When she sent that, I responded. I was like, “I think it’s unfair for the school to recruit low-income students, if you’re not going to take care of us when we get here.” I was like, “I don’t like being told to take out a loan, because that’s not really help.”

MOLLY LUBBERS: Eliza had assumed she would be paid the same amount as Winter Quarter. So when she saw that number on her screen, it was a scary moment.

ELIZA GONRING: I was like, OK, at the end of the day, I have that money to rely on. And then I woke up and it wasn’t there. And it was kind of terrifying. Like, I had all these plans this morning. I was going to get my reading done and all this stuff, and I just, like, I couldn’t do anything because I was just so worried about not having anything.

MOLLY LUBBERS: Eliza isn’t the only student who ran into that problem. One student talked with The Daily but requested to remain anonymous out of concerns for repercussions at her job. She already filled up her work-study allotment for the year during Winter Quarter. While she said her boss had been incredible and was trying to find work for her, she was frustrated with Northwestern’s response.

ANONYMOUS STUDENT: The University talks a lot of talk about how they’re going to support their workers and help you and they’re not going to. I don’t know if it’s, like, a genuine malice or if it’s just apathy or if it’s just they’re unable to, I don’t know, but at this time, I don’t think that the University as a whole is being effective. And I think a lot of it is because they don’t want to have to spend money and resources on us. And it really just comes down to the individual department that you’re employed by and if they’re going to take care of you and your financial status, so I just hope that others in other departments are able to have bosses that are looking out for them and fighting for their chance to support themselves.

MOLLY LUBBERS: When Eliza found out how much she would be refunded, she wasn’t sure if her boss would be able to rehire her. On Wednesday, March 25, Northwestern paused temporary employee hiring, effective through late April. Her job isn’t a work-study only position, and she has been hired in years past to continue working, even when her allotment ran out. But at first, she wasn’t sure if that would be a possibility.

ELIZA GONRING: We’re all just sitting here jobless, not knowing if or when we’re going to get a job back. And it’s so frustrating. It’s not surprising, because I’ve been here for three years, and I know this is just how they treat low-income students. But it’s really ironic considering that they had that email that was like, “Oh, we all came together, and this is gonna be so much easier.” But who are they coming together for?

MOLLY LUBBERS: The day after Eliza received the news of her refund amount, she filed an appeal with the University to raise her work-study allotment. Last Wednesday, she found out that appeal was granted. And just last Friday, she learned she was rehired.

ELIZA GONRING: There’s really not much work for me to do, so my hours are halved from what they would be in a typical quarter. So I’m definitely happy my allotment was raised because I think I honestly still need more than they were originally going to give me to get by.

MOLLY LUBBERS: But between the time she got the first email and when she got the funds she had been counting on, more than 20 days had passed.

ELIZA GONRING: The process is still kind of just like a little frustrating, just because they keep you in the dark about so much. Like if my boss hadn’t told me that HR was what was holding up me getting hired, like I wouldn’t have known that, just because the school wasn’t telling me. And just with the appeal thing, like once again, it’s so frustrating, because I still know people who haven’t had their allotment raised despite appealing. And it’s kind of weird because we really don’t know why they make these decisions. And even if the decisions aren’t arbitrary from our end, they just feel completely arbitrary. So I appreciate the University for helping me and giving me the support I need, I just wish the decisions would extend to everyone and that we could get more reasoning behind the decisions. Because like, that week where I didn’t have the money I thought I would have from the work-study refund, I hadn’t heard back from my job, I wasn’t sure if allotment could even get raised. It was all really kind of scary especially with everything that’s happening. (Laughs.) I would just appreciate more communication, more transparency.

MOLLY LUBBERS: So while Eliza’s appeal went through, Northwestern didn’t raise all students’ work-study allotments. And there are still unanswered questions as to whether more of the demands on Cameron’s petition will be met. There’s also a chunk of students who are employed by Northwestern, but not through the work-study program.

ANIKA MITTU: One of Cameron’s biggest concerns about the University’s decision is that the school still isn’t offering to help pay these employees.

CAMERON COOK: There are a lot of offices that hire both work-study and non work-study students, and it is unreasonable to offer work-study students kind of a severance package, like they’re laying us off and then paying us and not people who don’t qualify for work-study. It’s going to be a harder sell for the University because the way the work-study program works is the feds pay a big chunk. But, you know, if you’re hired by Northwestern, you don’t get work-study, they pay it all. To hold the University to the same standard on those people is going to be a harder win because they don’t want to give up money. But they have the money. But it’s a pandemic. If you’re not going to spend it on this, what are you going to spend it on?

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: And Cameron says there is potential for more student organizing if the admin isn’t willing to help.

CAMERON COOK: It might be worth it to bring in the big guns in terms of organizing to get some national organizations involved. I hope it doesn’t have to come to that point. And I hope the University will take this opportunity to make a concession to students before the fight turns more ugly, which is obviously something that a lot of us will be willing to do to continue to fight for it.

MOLLY LUBBERS: Northwestern has tried to become a more socioeconomically diverse school with various initiatives such as 20 by 2020, a goal of admitting a class of 20% Pell Grant eligible students, which was achieved in 2018. But Eliza thinks that many Northwestern students even forget that low-income students attend the school.

ELIZA GONRING: We’re not really mentioned during the True Northwestern Dialogue, which like, tried to mention all the marginalized groups on campus. We’re really not talked about, except for in little side notes on syllabuses or like, “Oh, this is a fund that exists, but we’re not going to advertise it except through word of mouth so that doesn’t get too big that we have to put more money into it.” So I think it’s intentional that we’re not pointed out to as like a distinct community on campus. Because then they would have to start taking care of us because we’d be visible, so I think the neglect is intentional. Also, kids on this campus, like, the fact that there’s low-income kids? Rich kids would have to start thinking about what that means about their wealth. It’s like if that disparity exists, what does that say about the amount you have? And should you be giving it to people that have less? That’s a question a lot of people don’t want to ask themselves, so it’s easier just to think that we’re all the same.

MOLLY LUBBERS: And in light of the initiatives that have gone into increasing NU’s FGLI community, Cameron hopes the University starts seriously considering all students who may need assistance as their income stream is brought to a halt.

CAMERON COOK: As the University tries to diversify in terms of income, if they’re trying to get FGLI students onto this campus and living in this campus and succeeding, then they have to start thinking about things like this. And they have to start admitting that “You’re on your own” isn’t going to work out very much anymore.

ANIKA MITTU: That’s all for this episode of NU Declassified. I’m Anika Mittu.

MOLLY LUBBERS: I’m Molly Lubbers.

VICTORIA BENEFIELD: And I’m Victoria Benefield. Thanks for listening!

MOLLY LUBBERS: This episode was reported and produced by Molly Lubbers, Anika Mittu and Victoria Benefield. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]
Twitter: @anika_mittu, @mollylubbers

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