A lot has changed on campus this year due to the ongoing pandemic. The vast majority of classes are held virtually, residence halls have serious restrictions and there are little-to-no activities going on across campus.
Student employment, though, is something that has remained a relative constant despite changes in specifics due to the nature of the pandemic.
Budget cuts due to the statewide budget shortfall, with UW-Madison suffering from a $50 million lapse between the current and previous fiscal years, have caused headaches for the UW administration as they find ways to cut corners and reduce spending. The university is also actively trying to reduce this semester’s anticipated $320 million deficit , while costs to cover COVID-19 preventative initiatives meant to protect the community have risen.
And Chancellor Rebecca Blank is not expecting the budget crisis to resolve itself any time soon.
The lack of revenue being generated across campus is astounding; auxiliaries like the Unions and athletic programs are estimated to have a $150 million budget shortfall, according to a Oct. 6 update from Blank. In this same update, she also announced another round of progressive furloughs starting Jan.1.
While Blank noted that furloughs are not anticipated to have as much of an impact on student employees as they will on University faculty and administrators, shortfalls and new initiatives due to the pandemic have affected these employees in different ways.
Erinn Slotta is a student employee at the Der Rathskeller in Memorial Union. Slotta, like many other student employees, has noticed how COVID-19 has shaped her employment experience. Although this is her first year working at the Rathskeller, differences from past years are apparent.
Amid usual tasks like bussing tables, assisting food delivery and working in the kitchen, Slotta and other employees are dealing with imminent tasks associated with creating a safe environment during a global pandemic.
“The Union has always taken cleaning and sanitization very seriously, but now because of coronavirus, it is imperative that we take every step we can,” Slotta said.
She also highlighted changes in the set up in the Rathskeller dining room. These changes encourage social distancing with tables at least six feet apart and a two-person limit per table, the cleaning of tables after each use and a rule that masks must be worn at all times when guests are not actively eating or drinking.
Similarly, Izzy Skocik, a front desk worker at Carson’s Market and Waters Residence Hall, is aware of the many precautions taken at the hall desks and noted how it makes her job more difficult.
There is a big emphasis on cleanliness, and due to the plastic barrier — standing between workers and students seeking to pick up packages or to get keys after locking themselves out of their dorm rooms — student workers have “to walk out of the desk area into the lobby” to get a package from a delivery person or to give a package to student.
Skocik was worried about COVID-19 at work when she first started, but once she became more comfortable with the precautions, her fears were eased.
Slotta’s need for a job “overtook the fear of corona,” and after she tested positive she was forced to take off work to isolate for two weeks, without pay.
Currently, university dining halls are closed for further notice given the recent spike in positive COVID-19 cases across campus.
“I know my friend who works at Gordons actually got a slight pay raise due to having to work in a very high risk environment,” said Slotta in reference to university-wide furloughs and budget cuts. Skocik also has not noticed any effects of budget cuts on her personal employment status.
Most recently, the majority of cuts and furloughs have affected higher-paid employers and not students like Slotta and Skocik, who work in food service or housing, for instance.
Additionally, despite budget shortfalls, the university is moving forward with their plan to institute a $15 minimum wage for hourly employees in January of 2021, although this raise does not apply to student employees.
Chancellor Blank has emphasized her and administrators’ goal to minimize the impact of budget changes on employees, but it is unclear what the future holds for employment as the pandemic continues.