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Risking health for employment: limited remote work options leave students with a difficult choice

If you are one of the many students at Carleton who has never had a serious illness, never questioned your access to healthcare and never been immunocompromised, your health has probably never been at the forefront of your decision making. Now, students are forced to factor their health into the equation when deciding whether to take an in-person work-study position and risk spreading COVID-19 or lose earnings.

For so many students, work is a necessary part of their Carleton experience. According to Rodney Oto, Associate Dean of Admissions and the Director of Student Financial Services, there are usually 1,500 students employed during Fall term, though only 1,200 are working now. Only 130 are working remotely. 

Students rely on Carleton employment for financial aid requirements, to support families, and for spending money. With fewer options available, and only a fraction of them remote, many students are feeling the strain. 

 For Izzy Charleton ‘23, coming back to campus was synonymous with beginning work again as a manager in LDC. She explained that as a Northfield native, any Carleton outbreaks would affect her community as well. “Seeing how Carleton has responded to [the pandemic], I felt safe enough to come back to campus”, she said. 

Others have seen resuming in-person work as unnecessary or unsafe for their health on campus. Lauren Witmer ’23 debated returning to her job as a Bakery Assistant in LDC and ultimately decided against it. “Because of COVID, I felt like I shouldn’t be handling food for the dining halls because if I get sick, then I could get a lot of other people sick,” she said.

Eric Rasmussen, Director of Operations at Bon Appetit, said in an email, “We understand some students are unable to work in the dining halls and we will transfer those students to other departments where they may be able to work remotely. We do have a couple positions where students are not engaging directly with the diners, but not many and those fill up fast. ”

Since returning to their in-person jobs, however, some students have not felt as supported by the Carleton administration as they had hoped. One RA described feeling unsafe despite new safety protocols. 

“They have extra masks, they gave us all sanitizer, they’re cleaning the bathrooms, they have occupancy limits, but they’re relying on distancing and those measures to be the main protections in place.”

At the beginning of the year, when freshmen in particular are still trying to bond with each other, distancing is not a priority. The RA described how, when asked, people would put masks on, but would routinely stay within six feet of each other. 

“They were also way more lax with the rules during meal times. They would linger when it came to eating so that they wouldn’t have to put their masks back on, so that you could see facial expressions. It’s easy to not stay six feet away, especially in the hallways and outside. The hallways are not conducive to social distancing.”

After a few days on campus, this RA started getting COVID-like symptoms and was told by Residential Life to move into isolation housing. 

“I had to pack up all my stuff and move into isolation housing across campus by myself. I had been so anxious and scared about getting sick and had been so cautious about safety measures at home. I didn’t go out, I didn’t see people, I really didn’t want to get sick. And then, all that caution was for nothing, regardless of all the safety measures I took on campus, because I got sick anyway,” they said.

Others have noted a lack of social distancing in their jobs as well. “I know that the floor plan with the arrows on the ground is kind of confusing and so people end up wandering around,” said Charleton when discussing the LDC layout.

For those students who do not feel comfortable resuming their in-person job, the task of finding remote work can prove difficult. Many jobs are inherently in person, such as dining hall positions, and cannot move into an online format. 

Maya Rogers ’22 knew she wanted to be a Peer Leader, but she could not work an in-person job. 

“I have health concerns about COVID because I’m immunocompromised,” she said. “At the same time, because of my concerns, I do have to be on campus because I only get medical care in Northfield and Minneapolis. I can’t go back home because then I would forego care.” She is now working as a SWA, where work is completely remote except for optional in-person office hours and projects.

Oto said that remote positions could not be guaranteed for students but that they would work with students unable to find another position. 

He explained, “We believe there are enough jobs on campus to accommodate everyone, especially those who have work as part of their aid award.  Still, we know that some departments have cut back this fall and some students may find themselves seeking new positions. Another option that some might consider is that hours not worked can be made up during the Winter and Spring terms.  So, if you can only work five hours during the Fall Term, during Winter and/or Spring Term you might seek a position for 15 hours.  As a last resort, we can convert expected job earning to an additional loan so there is no loss of the total amount of aid awarded.”

According to the Student Employment Policies and Procedures page, however, first-years are only permitted to work up to eight hours a week and returning students can only work up to ten hours a week. There is a precedent for working for up to 15 hours per week, but it is currently only permitted for students looking to make up lost earnings after participation in Off-Campus Programs. The SFS’s last resort idea of additional loans may present further problems for students who are already struggling to pay off loans.

Oto said that “it’s hard to say if every remote student will be able to find a job because of the qualifications each position entails. It is true that the number of jobs available is tighter this fall and so those on financial aid will be given some priority.”

Not all students have been able to find remote work or been supported by the Financial Aid office, as promised. Alé Cota ’22 said, “I am going to have to pick up a second remote job in order to be able to manage my rent and tuition prices. If the situation becomes more dire, then I will reach out for emergency funding.”

Cota said that remaining at home was not an option because of the difficulties of focusing on school in an environment that they described as “not safe as a queer, trans individual” as well as the economic strain on their family.  Still, they believed that coming to campus was too risky for everyone in the campus community. 

“The lack of hazard pay for custodial and student workers at a higher risk of contracting COVID such as RAs and dining hall workers was frustrating and I did not want to add more to their risk with my presence on campus,” they said. 

Overall, the limitations of pandemic-era Carleton have placed many students in a difficult bind. They are forced to choose between working in an unsafe environment or seeking further loans for financial aid. Some have been able to move their work online or find a new job. Others are stranded in limbo, facing reduced hours or potentially more loans.  

One Comment

  1. Paul Davis Paul Davis September 28, 2020

    Excellent article Hannah Davis

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