“Screaming into the void”: Student housing employees feel unheard and unsupported

Understaffing and disorganization led many HRL student staffers to voice frustrations during the first semester back on campus since the coronavirus pandemic began.


Photo by Matheus Kogi Fugita Abrahao

Kayla Benjamin and Meredith Shimer

Most names of student employees in this story were changed to protect the identity of sources whose job security may be threatened. Their identities were confirmed with the editors of this story to ensure their validity.

Desk receptionists and resident assistants at American University submitted two separate petitions to university administration during the fall semester, citing unclear and inadequate COVID-19 protocols, safety concerns for DRs on night shifts and a general lack of communication from supervisors.

“It’s hard because we have no place to air these grievances, because they aren’t answering to emails, and we don’t have meetings, so we’re kinda doing this: screaming into the void,” said Sally*, a desk receptionist. “We all complain to each other about it, but we don’t have the authority to get anything done.”

On Sept. 28, HRL Assistant Director Dana Larsen sent an email to all DRs saying that they were not permitted to speak to media, including campus outlets. RAs received a similar message.

This kind of censorship provided further proof that RAs need more worker protections, said a new RA named Jacob*. Workplace concerns among student staff in HRL are nothing new, and Jacob said some RAs have advocated for unionization in previous years and were shut down by AU administration.

“When they’re kind of suppressing the ability of the RAs to talk to the press,” said Jacob. “Then I feel like it further legitimizes the argument that we should unionize. So we could have a platform to speak through without fearing individual repercussions for it.”

In early September 2021, 227 students, including at least 43 RAs, signed a letter requesting mandatory biweekly COVID-19 testing, greater transparency about cases and a streamlined reporting system to document incidents of mask noncompliance.

“We deserve transparency about COVID-19 infections on our campus,” stated the petition, written by two RAs. “We are putting our lives at risk for this University and our fellow students, and it is time for the University to play a greater role in keeping us and the overall AU community safe.”

Jacob’s support for the petition was tied to firsthand experience: he had a resident test positive for COVID-19 on his floor. Since the incident happened before AU had started publishing case numbers on its COVID-19 dashboard, he said he felt left “in the dark” about whether the virus was spreading on his floor or in his building.

“We didn’t know about the number of cases other than the ones that I saw on my floor, and I just assumed that it was snowballing around the dorms,” he said. “And I couldn’t make my residents get tested.”

The COVID-19 dashboard, where the university reports community members’ positive cases, went live shortly after RAs submitted the petition. Jacob said that the dashboard does address some of his concerns, but because it doesn’t indicate whether positive cases are on-campus residents, he said it does not go far enough.

Director of Residence Life Lisa Freeman also met with one of the petition’s writers to discuss their concerns. Freeman declined to comment beyond directing inquiries to Assistant Vice President for Community & Internal Communication Elizabeth Deal.

“The dedicated student workers in Housing and Residential Life ensure for 24/7 desk coverage for on campus housing and we greatly appreciate their service and contributions to our community,” Deal wrote in an email. “DRs should continue to reach out to their supervisors directly if they are seeing unresolved issues. Not all issues can be solved overnight and require extensive consultation and collaboration with campus partners and stakeholders.”

Several HRL student employees described ongoing concerns about COVID-19 safety that they did not feel supervisors and administrators had addressed.

“I was in direct contact for like an extended period of time with someone who tested positive for COVID-19,” Alexis*, a desk receptionist, said. Based on Washington’s official guidance, the university advises vaccinated people to get tested three to five days after exposure and to continue daily activities while monitoring for symptoms in the meantime.

Alexis was exposed the day before a scheduled shift.

“I did not want to go to work because I didn’t want to potentially expose people if I was positive,” she said. “And I was told that I would not get an exemption for that and that I had to find someone else to cover my shift if I couldn’t come in.”

In the event that a desk receptionist does contract COVID-19, DR Marissa* said she is unclear what support Housing and Residence Life will provide. At a training session devoted to answering DRs’ questions, Marissa said she was not satisfied with the administration’s answers about what would happen if they got COVID-19 on the job.

“They basically just screwed around our question,” said Marissa.“Dana, one of the housing Residence Life staff, she alluded to basically, we’re not going to be compensated for the most part. And then she was saying that it’s pretty much kind of impossible to trace to the specific area where you got COVID-19.”

Contact tracing in dorms remains difficult in part because of a technological issue with Swipe & Show, a program intended to track who entered the dorms and differentiate building residents from visitors.

During the spring Mid Semester Residential Experience, when someone swiped their AU ID to enter a dorm, a program showed the receptionist on duty a color-coded response on their screen indicating if the AU community member lived in the dorm or not, she said. Technically, if someone does not live in the dorm, they are supposed to sign in as a guest so that if there is a COVID-19 case, the university would know who was in the building.

“There’s some issues with implementing it,” DR Alexis said. “They’re trying to get it back, but like without it, the security measures just aren’t really working.”

The university is working to address the technological issues experienced during the pilot program rolled out during the spring mini-mester in order to implement Swipe & Show across campus, Deal said in an email.

Some issues are localized to specific desks. One DR who works in Constitution Hall said that during almost every daytime shift, she has students wander in looking for the COVID-19 testing facility.

“You have people who could potentially be COVID positive coming in and asking where COVID testing is,” she said. “I just wish that AU would very, very clearly — like in all caps, italicize, underline, in whatever directions they’re giving people to go to Constitution Hall to get tested — make it clear that it is not [in] the residential part.”

Several DRs mentioned a common problem: they have run out of extra masks at their desks.

“We ran out of masks the week of move-in, and there have yet to be replacement masks, and I don’t understand why because we also have a shift log that we have to follow,” Sally said. “Any concerns or things that happen…we’re supposed to put in our shift log. We’ve all emailed about getting more masks at the front desk. They’re not reading them.”

The housing and residence life administration office did respond to DRs’ repeated requests for more masks.

“We got an email saying that masks are expensive, and whenever we give one out, we need to track who we’re doing it to, to track their AUID number and everything,” Marissa said. “Which really sucks because imagine someone’s trying to get a mask and leave. And you have to tell them ‘stop, I need your AUID number.’”

Even aside from the missing masks, DRs expressed concerns about being able to reach supervisors for general problems.

“I have sent, I think, two emails to my supervisor,” Marissa said. “And I haven’t gotten a response for either of them, actually.”

For Jacob, the COVID-19 safety concerns began early on, with the mandatory in-person training session in August that included both RAs and DRs. While DRs are paid by the hour, RAs do not get additional stipend money for the two weeks of mandatory training, which took place partly online and partly in person this year.

“It was some of the most unproductive hours of my life,” he said. “There were 100 of us stuck in Kerwin for a whole week, no mandatory testing before anyone got there…they’re the ones directing their response, basically, and ensuring the safety of others and you know from day one, the rules are broken.”

Safety beyond COVID-19

Like RAs earlier in the semester, DRs sent an open letter to administration Oct. 11 to express concerns that have been left unaddressed. One issue discussed in the petition centered on safety concerns during night shifts, particularly for DRs who live off campus and are women.

“Walking 15 minutes at 3pm — it’s very different than walking 15 minutes at two o’clock in the morning,” Sally said. “Especially if you’re alone, especially if you identify as female.”

She also mentioned that Cassell’s front doors occasionally open on their own, remaining open for minutes on end. 2Fix addressed the issue, but the repair didn’t last and the problem started up again not long afterward.

“We have to work those middle of the night shifts as a female, like sitting at the door, and it just randomly opens,” Sally said. “Knowing that anyone can walk in and there’s nothing I can do about it — that’s really scary.”

The petition also touched on high rates of “strandings,” where a receptionist is stuck at the desk when their replacement does not arrive, and protested the elimination of wage increases for overnight and holiday hours.

During the semesters when campus housing operations were limited due to COVID-19, DRs received $18 per hour for overnight and holiday shifts compared to their base pay of $15.20 per hour. Now, DRs are required to work at least one holiday break and four night shift hours every week and receive no additional wages.

In an op-ed published in the Eagle Oct. 18, DR Emily Brignand said HRL had yet to assign DRs the breaks they were required to work, making it impossible to schedule travel for Thanksgiving (most DRs received information about Thanksgiving break assignments by Oct. 21 this year).

Other DRs echoed a different concern Brignand raised in her op-ed: an unfair and inefficient scheduling system. At the end of training, all DRs were instructed to log onto SubItUp, a workforce management platform, and sign up simultaneously for shifts for the semester.

Unfortunately, the system only allowed users to sign up for one hour at a time, making it difficult to get multiple hours in a row while other people were also logged on and signing up for hours. If one DR wanted to work from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., for example, they would need to select a 5:00-6:00 slot, a 6:00-7:00 slot and a 7:00-8:00 slot separately.

“But the issue is everyone is doing this at the same time,” Sally said. “So if you could get five to six, then by the time that is done loading, someone has already taken six to seven, and then you have seven to eight.”

Sally said she has worked with other DRs to swap hours in order to get a more consistent schedule but wished there was a system for getting shifts input correctly the first time around.

The Oct. 11 open letter received 37 signatures, including more than 30 DRs and 2 RAs, before DRs sent it to Freeman and Larsen.

Senior Gavin Meyer, a DR who drafted the petition, said he was not optimistic it would provoke any significant change because of the lack of response by HRL to the RAs’ petition.

“I really hate to say it, but if they disregarded something so essential to the security of this campus as just more testing, then who’s to say that they’re not going to continue to treat their employees unfairly?” Meyer said.

Both RAs and DRs say they’ve experienced problems that stem from understaffing throughout HRL. Deal said the university is working on hiring more DRs but did not specify how many.

In her op-ed, Brignand wrote that poor communication and unreasonable expectations for night shifts and holiday work have contributed to retention problems among DR staff. She described having been left stranded at her desk four separate times this semester.

Even before the fall semester started, the university had to take special measures in an effort to fill the ranks.

“​​I was actually an emergency hire,” Meyer said. He became a DR in August of this year. “They didn’t have enough DRs. They still don’t.”

The university has also struggled to hold onto Community Directors, who directly supervise RAs. Two out of 11 CDs have quit since the beginning of the semester, and the university has yet to fill the positions.

Jacob said his CD, who had been in charge of three different residence halls to begin with, was one of the ones who quit.

“I haven’t had a community director, and they’ve just kind of been reassigning us [to new CDs],” he said.

Nicholas*, another RA who signed the petition for mandatory testing, said he’s had a positive, if stressful, experience in the job and enjoys helping his freshman residents “feel more comfortable in their college experience.” Still, he has noticed that supervisory staff is stretched thin.

“They have to pick and choose, sometimes, which concerns to address and which ones not to,” he said.