Desk receptionists petition University for better working conditions

In a letter to administrators, student employees raise concerns about pay and safety

Desk receptionists petition University for better working conditions

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional information. Two Eagle staffers who signed the letter — Isabelle Kravis, a copy editor, and Emily Brignand, a staff columnist — were not involved in the reporting, writing or editing of this story. 

A group of residence life student employees demanded safer working conditions and better pay in a letter addressed to campus administrators on Oct. 11. 

Among the top concerns raised by the 37 desk receptionists who signed the letter was the elimination of the $18 per hour pay rate for night shifts. Students wrote in the letter that receiving only $15.20 per hour for night and holiday shifts did not reflect the physical and mental toll of these less desirable work times. 

Talon Hyatt, a desk receptionist since January 2020, said the higher pay for night shifts was eliminated with no explanation from management.

“The first time I heard about it, I was going to be gone for the [fall] semester training,” Hyatt said. “I was talking to the head of training and leadership about [pay], and they told me that [the night rate] wasn’t going to be around anymore.”

Desk receptionists are required to work at least four hours each week during night shifts, which happen between 12 and 6 a.m. Hyatt also said workers are required to work at least one out of three holiday breaks with no pay incentives.

In an email to The Eagle, Elizabeth Deal, the assistant vice president for community and internal communication, said the $18 per hour rate for night shifts was temporarily offered while limited housing opportunities were made available due to COVID-19. 

Student employees also raised concerns about HRL administrators who reportedly failed to fill all work shifts, forcing some desk receptionists to work at the desk past their allotted shift and forcing residential assistants to fill the open shifts.

Gavin Meyer, a desk receptionist and senior in the School of Public Affairs, spearheaded the effort to write the letter and collect signatures from fellow desk receptionists. He started working as a desk receptionist in August as an emergency hire due to understaffing, an issue listed as one of the main concerns in the letter.

“There are things that AU should and could be doing that they’re not doing,” Meyer said. “That’s why we wanted to organize this.”

Both Meyer and Hyatt stressed the importance of being vocal about student employee concerns in an environment in which they said transparency is discouraged. 

“Instead of creating a solution to the problem, [HRL] could get rid of the people that are speaking out about the problem,” Meyer said. “That could send just as loud a message.”

In emails obtained by The Eagle earlier this semester, desk receptionists were told that they “should not be speaking to media or providing comments that relate to any aspect of [their] role, or housing and residence life.” Desk receptionists were instead asked to refer media requests to Lisa Freeman, the director of residence life. The email cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and some topics that are “sensitive in nature” as the reason for this limitation. 

Deal added that the University has and will continue to review its policies to best support equitable and safe working conditions. 

“Direct feedback is always encouraged to the staff member’s supervisor and through student staff advisory council, which is specifically designed for student staff members to have a forum for their concerns,” Deal stated.

Meyer said getting other desk receptionists to sign off on the letter to their superiors posed a bit of a challenge as concerns over job security were raised.

“I know people felt like they were going to have the boss’s eye on them,” Meyer said. “I understand the mentality that some of the DRs had, which is that they didn’t want their name to be on a document that our bosses would look at and probably bristle at.”

Meyer said he campaigned for signatures primarily from desk receptionists, but two RAs also signed the letter. Meyer said he is hopeful a positive response from HRL will encourage RAs to bring forth their concerns.

The Office of Housing and Residence Life employs 120 desk receptionists and 90 residential assistants, according to the University.

In the letter, employees also made complaints about communication issues with their superiors.

“They are really responsive when somebody does something wrong,” Meyer said. “They’re also very keen to send emails about reinforcing the rules. But as far as listening to desk receptionists’ concerns, compared to how they let us know about when we don’t do well, their response time is not great.”

In September, multiple unnamed female employees working late-night shifts were followed by a man in a car while walking home from work, the letter alleged. The incident was reported to AUPD and students were directed to use the University’s safe walk program, “but were told not to make a habit of utilizing that resource,” the letter stated.

Although she had never been followed after a night shift, Hyatt said that she worried about her safety in dealing with unruly students returning to campus late at night.

“A lot of the time, especially on weekends, I’ve had to deal with a lot of drunk freshmen and disrespectful backlash at [requesting identification],” Hyatt said. “I’ve dealt with aggressive food delivery people who don’t comply with university policy.”

Hyatt also said that she and the concerns of other desk receptionists were never communicated with HRL as dealing with aggressive residents and visitors was an expected part of working the night shift.

To address the issues listed in the letter, student staff requested a reinstatement of the $18 per hour pay for night shifts and holidays. They also requested equal and safe work environments for female employees, virtual training for staff to increase efficiency and to address COVID-19 concerns and more effective communication mediums with supervisors.

As of Oct. 19, Meyer said he is still awaiting a response from HRL to the desk receptionists’ requests after an initial acknowledgment of receipt on the day the letter was sent.

“I’m lucky enough that I have the financial security to be okay without this [job], but these are concerns that need to be talked about and addressed,” Meyer said. “Right now, future plans just involve continuing these conversations, and we’re going to continue them for as long as we can.”

mwong@theeagleonline.com

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