As Dane County’s mask mandate expired earlier this month, University of Wisconsin-Madison students are now faced with the expiration of the university-wide mandate on the first day of spring break, March 12. Some praised the removal of the mask mandate, while others were less optimistic about the future without masks.
One group particularly worried by the mandate removal are student employees. Student employees are an essential part of the employment structure at the university — from working at hall desks to dining halls, student employees play a day-to-day role in ensuring the proper and efficient functions of UW-Madison systems.
Some student employees from University Housing feel that their voice hasn’t been heard as the university prepares to drop its mask requirement in residence halls. While some have vented through the Associated Students of Madison and their respective Student Workers Rights Committee, many report that they still don’t feel that their concerns were taken into consideration.
“The university could not have chosen a worse time to remove the mandate,” said Grace Bauernfeind, a student supervisor at Carson’s Market, a smaller dining market surrounded by Adams, Slichter and Tripp Hall. “Students are going to travel on break, and I worry COVID will spread like wildfire when we get back.”
Bauernfeind feels that the announcement has been anxiety inducing, adding that she “already felt unsafe often being around people without any other COVID-19 safety precautions than mask wearing.”
Bauernfeind’s frustrations seemed to be matched by many others working in UW Housing. One of those people with particular insight on the problems faced by University Housing is Bea Sutton, part of the Head Office team at Carson’s Market. The Head Office teams are groups of students working in the dining halls who are responsible for making schedules, managing staff and addressing concerns and problems, amongst a plethora of other assigned responsibilities.
“The university does currently offer full time staff, but not student employees, two KN95 masks a week. If they extended that to student employees, I would feel safe at work, and I feel more people would be safe at work,” said Sutton. “They need to have every student who wants to keep themself safe [to] have that option provided to them by the university, or they shouldn’t be taking away the security [aka the mask mandate] that they already have.”
This sentiment was matched by many students working for University Housing. Very few, if any, were outright against lifting the mandate. Instead, they felt that the mask mandate should only be lifted once the university is able to provide the highest level of protection to its student employees. This hasn’t been, and continues to not be, the case, according to employees. Student employees only have access to surgical masks in their role.
“With the high vaccination rate on campus, low case counts and mask options, students have tools to help protect themselves from COVID-19,” said Brendon Dybdahl, a spokesperson for University Housing, in response to an inquiry from the Cardinal. “Housing continues following the campus guidelines, which are informed by guidance from the CDC and local health experts. The risk of COVID-19 in housing environments is no greater than elsewhere on campus or in public settings, where masks will be optional as well.”
Dybdahl mentioned that since the beginning of the pandemic, they have made “masks and face coverings available to student employees,” but made no comment on the availability of KN95 or N95 mask availability.
For many student employees, the decision to not extend the mask mandate is another part of a string of frustrations that have already caused many to quit. One of these points of contention is the University Housing employee COVID-19 policy.
“The COVID policy is very vague. If someone calls in and says they’re sick, ‘I think I have COVID,’ I can’t excuse them unless they have a positive COVID test. If their test results don’t come back for a few days and they are out of, or can’t afford to take, an unpaid personal day, they could spread COVID because they are required to come into work,” said Sutton, who often had to make these difficult calls.
Bauernfeind echoed these concerns about the policy.
“I find the Housing COVID policy to be a farce put in place only to keep up the appearance of trying for the general public. If an employee suspects they have COVID, they basically have to come in regardless, unless they get a negative result, and I have ended up working next to someone with COVID as a result,” said Bauernfeind. “Whoever came up with this clearly just wanted to make sure there were enough student employees at work without thinking through the implications of the policy, and I often feel safe because of it.”
On top of all of those frustrations, University Housing is facing an employee shortage that is taking a serious toll on their student workers.
“Staffing is already such a huge issue. We are extremely understaffed and it’s causing a lot of stress, and because of the stress people are quitting,” said Sutton, who said she is working nearly 25 hours per week, the maximum number of hours possible to take on as a student worker.
Anna Kleiber is a team member, which is the equivalent of a student entry-level position at University Housing, at Carson’s Market. Kleiber brought up the staffing issue as a major stressor for her and her coworkers.
“We’re working harder than ever,” said Kleiber. “I’m doing three people's worth of work in one shift to close the dining hall.”
Even then, one dining hall employee reported that they are consistently closing anywhere from half an hour to an hour later than last semester.
“Most of our staff are students, most of whom are freshmen, and lots of them are taking classes with large numbers of people. People are going to be exposed to people who they don’t know are vaccinated, and without effective [KN95, N95] masks, lots of our student employees will be faced with a decision between class, grades and work, and they’re placing lots of these choices on the students which they shouldn’t have to,” said Sutton, who is worried that the lack of masks in lecture halls might further exacerbate the staffing problem.
University Housing has taken steps to increase student staffing, and reward current staff for their work. Current employees are able to refer new employees for a $200 bonus. Additionally, University Housing is offering a lump sum bonus of $1.00 per hour paid out at the end of each semester. However, even those measures didn’t go without controversy.
The main criticism from student employees, including Kleiber, of the referral bonus was that instead of offering a hiring bonus to pull in new employees, the referral bonus goes to employees who already work for housing.
“It’s like a slap in the face,” said one Gordon Avenue Market employee referring to the lump sum bonus, who preferred to stay anonymous. “I’m working my ass off, filling in for the staff we’re missing, and instead of giving us the $1 raise, they choose to rope people into continuing working in this environment, which is beyond stressful. I don’t see how you can claim to put students first, as housing does, and continue to pressure those who choose to work for them to continue to do so, even when their mental health starts to deteriorate. It’s ridiculous.”
When asked about why those student employees that are upset with working conditions choose not to quit, they typically respond that they feel an obligation to their friends and coworkers. Some students feel that quitting would make things worse for their friends who can’t afford to quit, be it for financial aid reasons or others.
“I am a low income student. I need to work in order to still go to school here, and this job is very important to my livelihood. I wish they would at least give the option [of the best masks] to all students; they need to at the very least offer the option for everyone to be as safe as they can be,” Sutton added.
Many students feel that the solution is simple: higher wages.
“I think the best way to keep the people we have as well as bring new workers in would be to increase wages,” Kleiber stated. “Being a student worker isn’t easy on its own and it's even harder when we’re understaffed and expected to pick up the slack without any extra compensation.”
Student employees acknowledge that raising wages isn’t easy, but many were quick to point out that University Housing has offered the additional $1.00 per hour lump sum pay increases in the past, as was the case when employees received an additional $1.00 for every hour they worked last semester. Kleiber, amongst others, cite this as evidence that wages could be raised.
“University Housing is always looking at our student employee wages to ensure we're providing fair compensation,” Dybdahl said. “At times during the pandemic, Housing has offered incentives in appreciation for hard work during challenging times, including a temporary $1/hour increase throughout the fall 2020 semester, but this was to reward their extraordinary efforts, not to reflect any higher risks for staff. This past fall, Housing permanently raised the starting wage for all student positions to a minimum of $11, and we continue reviewing how we compensate our student workers.”
The university’s pandemic response has caused uncertainty for all students, particularly for those who rely on their campus jobs to sustain themselves and their studies. Now, many of those workers face an entirely new challenge — trying to figure out whether they want to continue their employment without the requirement of masks.
For some, the decision to stay will be easy. For those students who do continue to worry about the effects of the pandemic, the path forward is less clear.
“With removing the mask mandates, many people come up to me and they are nervous, and (they) ask if we will still have masks at work after spring break. And I have to respond that I don’t know, and that’s scary,” Sutton said. “I’m afraid we’re going to lose lots of employees due to this fear.”
Ian Wilder is a current features writer and former state politics reporter for The Daily Cardinal. Follow him on Twitter at @IanWWilder.