Photo taken by Melissa Touche (Baca).
In September 2020 student staff resident assistants (RA) at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse created a petition and went on strike for safety and health protocols in residence halls. UWL junior and resident assistant in Eagle Hall Naixuan Wang said, “they [UWL administration] promised us things that are clearly not here, yet they want us to be quiet about it.”
A petition was posted to change.org by six UWL RA’s asking for support and stating that this petition, “[does] not represent all people’s opinions in these demands and our numbers/survey is a small glimpse of the people in this area.”
The petition states, “With limited protection measures in place, UWL is also putting the La Crosse community at a higher risk. We have compiled a list of conditions that reflect our increased risk to COVID-19.” The petition lists eight demands:
“DEMAND 1: All Residence Life Staff (Professional, Office, Student Staff, Assistant Hall Directors, Hall Directors, Housekeepers, and Assistant Housekeepers) will receive better quality personal protective equipment.
DEMAND 2: Implement routine schedules to ensure clean, empty, and safe public spaces. Our home is our workspace and classroom now. We should be protected at all costs because our lives are not expendable.
DEMAND 3: Student Staff are guaranteed job security and contract benefits: including stipends, housing, and meals for the length of our contracts during and after negotiations as well as during the COVID-19 pandemic.
DEMAND 4: Student staff will receive hazard pay of at least $15 an hour for in-person related tasks (e.g. duty rounds, working the front desk, etc.). Otherwise, our work remains 100% virtual assistance to residents of the hall.
DEMAND 5: There will be direct and transparent communication from administration to student staff members so we can clearly work through and agree to new changes within our contract for our positions without the fear of losing our jobs.
DEMAND 6: The Quarantine Position will be fulfilled by a medical professional instead of a Hall Director, Assistant Hall Director, Student Staff member, or residents in our halls as we are not trained for this position nor are we protected by UWL Residence Life liability.
DEMAND 7: UWL Residence Life will fund and mandate weekly rapid response COVID-19 testing.
DEMAND 8: The Office of Residence Life will support the efforts of UWL Residence Life Student Staff Member Coalition and grant them voting power in administrative decisions as a continual effort to receive feedback from their lifeline workers.”
As of Sept. 4, the petition garnered over 1,400 signatures from UWL and La Crosse community members.
The student staff met with UWL administration regarding their list of demands on Sept. 3. According to an email that was sent to student staff members, UWL chief human resources officer John Acardo stated, “Unfortunately, many of the concerns that you had brought forth are outside of our control and therefore cannot be addressed; specifically, those relating to items that would be collectively bargained. While the institution recognizes your right to organize to change Wisconsin Law, the current legal and policy parameters restrict our ability to engage with you in negotiations or collective bargaining”.
The email continued, “I want to make clear that the institution has an obligation to ensure continuity of operations and will take the appropriate steps to ensure that the move-in process and bringing our students back safely is not disrupted. As the university had offered to our residents, if you are uncomfortable with your current position or no longer wish to continue as an RA, we would honor your decision to discontinue in that role.”
Student-workers get paid $7.25 an hour, and those who volunteer to work in residence halls used for quarantining students with COVID-19 are not being offered any hazard pay and are being paid the same rate as RA’s who are working in non-quarantine residence halls.
UWL released a statement to the media in regards to the ongoing situation, and as a response to the list of eight demands.
UWL said in the press release, “this is the most difficult concern for us to address. The university is prohibited by state law and UW System policy from engaging in any form of collective bargaining with the students but recognizes their right to lobby for a change to state law. The resident assistant compensation package is a combination of free room and board (valued at $6,981) and a monthly stipend that ranges from $600 to $1,400 per year, depending on seniority.”
It was announced through social media that RA’s would be going on strike as of Sept. 3 and hosting a rally at the Hoeschler Clock Tower on Sept. 4.
The rally was led by Sadie Szabelski, DeVonte Kuykendall, Sakiah Marks-Rivera, Naixuan Wang, Cynthia Vang, and Madison Slayton.
During the rally on Friday, Sept. 4, resident assistants revealed they were going to delay the strike temporarily in favor of doing their best to help their residents and staff as best they can during the first few weeks and move-in time.
Szabelski said that UWL administration “needs to do more” for UWL students and staff members in residence halls. “One of the pieces of information that should have been communicated first and foremost was that we were going to have 100 percent capacity [for residence halls]. It was days before I learned that,” she said.
Szabelski also said that UWL has not hired second shift housekeeping staff despite residents moving in. “They’re still looking for people to hire to do the job that we need done right now. How is that acceptable?”
Szabalski said that of those who filled out a poll sent to student staff members, “72 percent said ‘I don’t feel safe, respected, heard as a staff member during this pandemic.'”
“My goal today is not to persuade you to believe what we believe, but it is to introduce the thought that we live in a bigger community, our decisions matter, and the administration and university needs to step up with us, and work with us, get our input, to make sure we are safe,” she said.
UWL alumni, Kevin Hundt read a prepared statement in which he received permission to read, regarding the UWL school of education. He said, “UWL school of education is requiring student teachers to travel in person over long distances to schools outside La Crosse County,” he continues that student-teachers are still required to complete the edTPA, a teacher candidate assessment method, despite Gov. Tony Evers emergency order suspending assessments.
To view a live stream of the rally, click here. To sign the petition posted by UWL RAs, click here.