Opinion: ‘Danger’ wasn’t in the job description
American University has a duty to ensure that their student workers, especially women, feel safe and comfortable in their work environment
From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's November 2022 print edition. You can find the digital version here.
Safety is one of the most important expectations a person has for their job. We expect to work in a safe environment under an employer that has measures in place to protect employees. American University, employer to a vast amount of student workers, had failed to provide a safe work environment for female-presenting desk receptionists for far too long.
Working an overnight shift in any student job is stressful and can be concerning, especially for female-presenting students. There are many different student jobs on campus which have late night shifts. This not only includes desk receptionists, but also student library workers with the library open 24 hours and the Cassell and Jacobs Fitness Centers open until 11 p.m. and midnight, respectively. Walking home alone at night after a shift is deeply unsettling and a legitimate fear for women everywhere. The Guardian wrote an article in 2021 in which they spoke with women about this fear. The article consists of quotes from many different women, yet all with the same feelings: “I don’t relax until I reach my destination” and “I’m always aware there is potential danger.”
This isn’t the first time The Eagle has made note of the concerns from student workers. Just last year, 37 desk receptionists signed a letter regarding the elimination of the $18 hourly pay rate for night shifts as opposed to the normal $15.20 hourly pay rate. The letter also referred to the communication issues from the superiors in Housing and Residence Life. In September of 2021, female employees who were walking home after working late night shifts were followed by a man in a car. When they had reported this to AUPD, they were offered the University’s safe walk program “but were told not to make a habit of utilizing that resource,” according to the letter. The incident and University response were included in the letter.
Many also are put in uncomfortable situations while on the job. In that same Eagle article from 2021, Talon Hyatt, a desk receptionist, also noted that “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.” Working through difficult situations is reasonable when working a front desk job, but dealing with aggression and dangerous situations alone at night should never be expected.
There have been a few changes made since these unsettling incidents. Desk receptionists are not required to work night shifts, but much of the changes made have not been widely shared with the greater student body. It is difficult to find any information regarding changes made for better safety which can make any student, especially women, concerned with their protection for simply trying to work a student job. AU has the capacity to do more as a university to protect and provide resources to its valuable student workers to ensure they feel comfortable not only during their shift, but at every step getting to and from their shift.
Some will say those with concerns should work another student job instead, but that lends itself to even more cause for outcry and is victim blaming, which is damaging to those who have this fear and to the greater culture of the community. Women should not have to avoid a student job altogether because of an issue AU refuses to resolve. The University should have protections in place and better communication with its student workers. Adequate and advertised resources should always be available to student workers, and supervisors should be communicative and supportive when students come to them with questions and concerns. This is not solved by female-presenting workers quitting their job, but by a true community of care that values its students through safety measures and a comfortable environment for all.
In a world where college women ages 18 to 24 are three times more at risk of sexual violence, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, and fear simply walking down the street, universities have a responsibility to make their female-presenting students feel safe in every aspect of their campus. The lack of comprehensive security and concern for a large group of people who often feel unsupported and unprioritized by society is disheartening. AU and Housing and Residence Life can and must do better by those it educates and employs to change the culture of a community that is consistently violent towards women.
Anna Gephart is a junior in School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.