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Sunday, June 16, 2024
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Residential assistants express grievances over new policy changes and workplace atmosphere

“I feel like we just have the housing hanging over our heads and they’re dangling it.”

Editor’s Note: Rebecca Oss is a former managing editor for Online for The Eagle.

Residential assistants at American University said they have concerns about this semester’s policy changes, which range from a new format for training to a limit on the number of hours they can work at other on-campus jobs. 

RAs said they’ve had other long-term issues with ambiguous workplace policies, ineffective training, uncomfortable interactions with professional staff and what they feel is inadequate compensation. 

The Department of Housing and Residence Life oversees residence hall operations and employs RAs, who are responsible for carrying out HRL policies in the residence halls and connecting campus residents to student resources. 

Recent policy changes

During the academic year, part-time student employees must work “fewer than 28 hours per week or work any number of hours per week for three consecutive months or less,” according to the University’s Staff Personnel Policy Manual. Part-time student jobs are capped before 28 hours because after that they become designated as full-time positions. In prior years, the RA position was logged with Human Resources as 25 hours of work a week, allowing RAs to take on a few hours at other jobs around campus. However, this year the RA position was logged as 27 hours, forcing some RAs to quit their other on-campus employment positions. 

Thomas Grishaber, a current RA and senior in the School of Public Affairs, said that he’s seen the financial burden this policy change has placed on his fellow RAs.

“A lot of people need this job, on top of other jobs, to actually make ends meet,” he said “Like, personally I work three jobs to make my ends meet, but, thank God, they’re not on-campus jobs.”

Elizabeth Deal, the University’s assistant vice president for community and internal communication, said in an emailed statement to The Eagle that the change in hours was made to ensure that RAs have the availability to complete all job expectations, and that RAs were informed of the policy during training.

“This policy is also outlined in the RA handbook,” Deal said. “As stated in the RA job description, the position should be prioritized after fulfilling academic responsibilities.”

According to the RA contract, “Resident Assistants are permitted to maintain outside commitments of up to 16 hours/week while serving in the RA position.” Such commitments could still include employment off-campus.

Grishaber said that changes to the format of this year’s training also put undue stress on HRL student staff. What used to be a 10-day training course was compressed into eight, 10-hour days, which, according to Grishaber, created long, lecture heavy training sessions.

Is training working?

Multiple current and former RAs have said that the format of training doesn’t lend itself towards active participation. Precious Aimufua-Agbontaen, a junior in SPA who worked as an RA during the 2022-23 academic year, said that she rarely found the hours of lectures effective.

“Honestly, when it came to training it was just a matter of getting to the end of the day,” she said. “There’s some things that we have to note down in case of emergencies, so those things I did pay attention to, but most of the time I felt like it was repeated information. I also felt that some of the trainings weren’t completely necessary.”

Veronica Botero, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, started as an RA at the beginning of the fall 2023 semester and was fired in September. During this year’s RA training, new hires had to miss parts of training in order to get their I-9 forms verified, a process which is required for every new University staff member. Botero said that the verification process went over its allotted time and new RA’s had to complete the process during other parts of the training.

“We were missing not only training time, but time to go get our lunches in order to go get this verification,” she said.

Grishaber said he was concerned at the beginning of the semester about the effect of this semester’s training on HRL operations. New RAs who were unable to complete their I-9 verification during the allotted time were never trained on how to fill out incident reports, according to Grishaber, because they had to complete I-9 verification during that portion of training. 

“I feel like new RAs were not trained in any capacity for on-call [duties],” he said. “When we did walk-throughs with our teams they did not know a lot.”

Botero said that, while she felt that the hands-on portion of training prepared her for bigger emergencies, she left training with unanswered questions about the day-to-day role of an RA –– especially when it came to what would happen if RAs didn’t meet job expectations.

“Like, what do you do when your floor doesn’t want to come to your meetings? What are we supposed to do? And were we going to be punished for that?” she said. “We weren’t really given a definitive answer. It was just kind of an ‘or else.’”

Systemic issues

While the changes to HRL policy this year have created unease among some RAs, Rebecca Oss, a former RA who graduated in May 2023, said that there are systemic issues that make the job difficult and unsafe. Specifically, they mentioned a lack of support from superiors, a high turnover rate of HRL’s professional staff, difficult job hours and inadequate compensation.

According to Oss, RAs don’t receive enough support from HRL professional staff. While on call, HRL encourages RAs to call community directors or assistant directors if they encounter issues. However, Oss said that, frequently, CDs won’t respond to calls when they are on duty and RAs are left to rely on each other.

In her first semester as an RA, Oss said she was having trouble with another floor’s resident coming to her floor to follow and harass female students. After having multiple conversations with the resident on her own, Oss said she reached out to her superiors for support.

“I had no support from the associate directors. At this time I didn’t have a CD, and I was emailing the associate director a ton being like, ‘Hey, this kid keeps causing issues on my floor and I’ve had conversations with him,’” they said. “This was also early into my first semester being an RA and I did not know what to do.”

Grishaber said that the lack of HRL support is compounded by the turnover rate among HRL’s professional staff. When the difficulty of the job pushes community and assistant directors to leave, he said, the work gets left to RAs.

“I actively see community directors talking about wanting a new job and finding a new job — policies are unclear and they overwork everyone in this position,” Grishaber said. “But, I think that they approach [the RA position] like a full-time job, which it’s not a full-time job at the end of the day. We’re students first.”

The Eagle sent multiple requests for data from the University on the rate of turnover for HRL professional staff but did not receive it. 

Some RAs said that their pay doesn’t properly compensate them for the work that’s expected of them, or the hours they work. RAs are paid on a grant and stipend basis. Housing is free for all RAs through a grant, and RAs also receive a monthly stipend of $375, roughly $350 after taxes. 

Botero said that compensation isn’t enough. While the free housing was vital for her, she said that the stipend RAs receive can’t cover other living costs. She added that since RAs aren’t given a meal plan and have limited options for outside work, their stipend becomes even more vital.

“At the very minimum, if you’re not going to pay the RAs more, tack on the meal plan –– even if it’s the most basic one and people can pay up if they want to,” Botero said. “We live in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. And considering the limitations that they place on having other jobs, it’s really hard to make up the extra money."

Aimufua-Agbontaen said that she had other issues with RA compensation, specifically with housing. Because RA housing is paid in the form of a grant, it affects other forms of financial aid. She said that $3,000 was taken off her initial financial aid offer when her $6,000 housing grant was added. Since she worked for that compensation, she said it didn’t make sense to have the money for her housing be paid as a grant or have it detract from the other aid she received. 

The issue of compensation becomes more difficult, Aimufua-Agbontaen said, because of the irregular hours that RAs work.

“I don’t think we’re compensated enough. $350 a month — if you break it down to the amount of hours that we work, it doesn’t compare considering being an RA is a 24/7 job.” she said. “Even when you’re not on duty or even when you’re not on call, you’re still on. As long as you’re in your room, as long as your phone is on you, you’re still on.”

Workplace atmosphere

Oss said she did not always feel respected when she was an HRL employee. During her last year as an RA, she spoke with her community director and asked to be placed on different shifts than another RA who she felt unsafe around. While her request was honored initially, Oss said that after a while HRL leadership did not comply with her wishes. 

“To tell a CD, ‘Hey I had an incident with this person and I don’t feel comfortable working with them,’ and then having to work a shift with that person — that is not fun,” she said.

HRL uses the phrase, “progressive accountability,” to refer to repercussions for failure to meet employment expectations. According to Botero, Grishaber and numerous other RAs, a lack of clarity around these guidelines has made it hard for them to tell what is expected of them in their roles –– and fearful of what would happen if they were to make a mistake. 

According to the RA contract, “Progressive Accountability Guidelines will be outlined during training.” However, Botero said information was never communicated, nor is there anywhere that RAs can look it up for themselves.

“We were kind of walking in there blind, having no idea what we could do or what we couldn’t do,” Botero said.

Grishaber said he received a ‘final warning’ from HRL during his first semester as an RA for not picking up the phone while on call, something he said he didn’t know had such serious ramifications. This ambiguity, he said, has made him feel uncomfortable taking on new responsibilities and created a feeling of anxiety in his job. He described the way that HRL leadership communicates with RAs and the expectations it sets as creating an “atmosphere of hypervigilance.”

“It means I’m walking on eggshells every part of the day,” Grishaber said. “Me doing something at the desk, I don’t know if that’s going to be considered wrong, and I feel like the cameras are always being watched above the desks –– like if I’m not doing something right, then they’re going to catch it on film or things like that.”

Deal wrote in a comment to The Eagle that there is no “progressive accountability” policy for RAs to refer to because there’s no set policy that outlines specific ramifications for RAs not meeting job expectations. However, according to Deal, during RA training HRL’s professional staff outline the responsibilities and expectations for the RA role and give examples of violations to “provide a comprehensive overview of the RA role.”

“There is not any specific job error that will, in every instance, necessarily result in a specific job action,” Deal wrote to The Eagle. “Instead, supervisory staff evaluate the totality of the circumstances relevant to the error before they take any specific action in response. One data point that goes into their evaluation is an assessment of how [the] University has responded in the past to others in a similar position who have engaged in a similar type of behavior."

As part of HRL’s initiative to get feedback from their student workers, professional staff hold monthly Student Staff Advisory Council meetings from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., on either Tuesdays or Fridays, where RAs and desk receptionists are able to air their grievances. 

However, unlike previous years where leadership sent out a form to gauge availability, this year HRL picked the meeting date without consulting students, according to Grishaber. Ultimately, he said that meant that the meetings conflict with two separate class blocks, making it difficult for many people to attend.

In her comment, Deal wrote that RAs are encouraged to share their suggestions and feedback on how to improve HRL operations and support for student employees. 

“Opportunities for RAs to share and discuss feedback include weekly staff meetings, weekly one-on-one meetings between an RA and their community director, and “in-service” meetings which include all RAs and community directors,” she wrote.

Deal also detailed the policy that RAs are supposed to refer to when having an issue with a superior. 

“Community directors supervise our team of Resident Assistants (RAs). To report an issue related to how a community director is performing their duties, RAs should contact the director of residence life and/or the assistant vice president for student engagement and success. This process, as outlined by HR policy, was communicated to RAs during their week-long training,” she wrote.

Botero said that professional staff refer to this unofficial policy as “speak up, not out,” which she said means that RAs are to go to a superior if they are having issues with someone in leadership and not discuss issues with other RAs. Botero said her superiors told her this policy is meant to avoid rumors spreading and resulting in messy interpersonal conflicts, however, the policy isn’t specifically outlined in the RA handbook.

Botero said she felt that this system is not always effective and that it limits transparency. According to her, worries about rumors spreading results in a lack of communication between RAs and HRL leadership when an RA reports an issue.

“I just feel like it can create kind of an awkward discomfort if you do ever have a complaint,” she said. “So while I see their point … I do believe that if you are involved in a situation, you do have a right to know what's going on.”

Grishaber said that when he does receive information from his superiors, it is often unclear or conflicting –– which he says further contributes to his unease. 

“They say things verbally but then in emails it’s a completely different thing,” he said. “I try to record every conversation I have with leadership and I try to get everything in writing because it’s fucking scary. And I don’t really expect HR to help a student worker out at the end of the day. So basically, I just try my best to stay in line.”

After Oss witnessed an incident with an RA on their team, which The Eagle independently verified, they said that they understand the unease. An RA that Oss worked with wasn’t rehired to their position after pushing back against HRL policy and raising concerns about the disrespect they felt from a superior, Oss said. This person did not receive any warnings prior to their not being rehired and ended up exploring the option to transfer schools because they couldn’t afford AU’s tuition without the housing grant, Oss said.

According to Grishaber, Botero and numerous other RAs The Eagle interviewed, HRL, on multiple occasions throughout the semester, discouraged RAs from speaking to news media. Grishaber said it was verbally communicated to RAs that job action could be taken if RAs talked to media without consulting the University’s communications department. 

Botero said she felt that the financial necessity of the RA position also keeps student workers from advocating for themselves. When her employment was terminated with HRL, Botero said that she was left scrambling to afford housing alongside tuition.

“Losing the job and losing the housing was a huge hit,” she said. “It’s definitely something where my parents are probably going to have to take some more loans out in order to help pay the rest of my living this year.”

Grishaber said that he “thought about unionizing” in order to advocate for RAs, but the fear of retaliation and the potential to lose his housing has prevented him from making serious strides.

“I feel like we just have the housing hanging over our heads and they’re dangling it,” Grishaber said.

Making change

The University did not respond to The Eagle’s request for comment on allegations from RAs about HRL workplace atmosphere.

Despite the issues that Oss, Botero and other RAs said they had while in their positions, they all agreed that they enjoyed interacting with their residents and forming bonds with their communities. However, they also said that there are changes they would like to see to improve the working environment within HRL.

“There’s a reason I came back for my second year,” Oss said. “There was a lot of great moments in that job, a lot of great people — people care about the residents, about the position, about their floors — and there’s also a lot of crazy shit.”

Grishaber said that having more open communication between professional staff and RAs, alongside a pay increase, would make it easier for RAs to succeed in their roles. 

“I would just like more transparency for the RA role and the progressive accountability on top of increased compensation,” he said. “Like, even a meal plan, I think RAs would appreciate a fucking meal plan.”

Aimufua-Agbontaen said that in addition to higher pay and an increased budget for required events, she wants more compassion from HRL leadership for the workload and responsibilities placed on RAs.

“I don’t think they understand the severity of being on shift 24/7 plus taking classes,” she said. “We need a little bit more leniency –– I mean we are students at the end of the day, student workers.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said Grishaber didn't know not picking up the phone while on call had "any" ramifications. The article has been corrected to say that he didn't know it had "such serious" ramifications as being placed on final warning. A previous version of this article misspelt Precious Aimufua-Agbontaen's name, and has been updated with the correct spelling. A previous version of this article listed Botero as a student in the School of International Service. This article has been corrected to say that they are a student in the School of Public Affairs.

This article was edited by Tyler Davis, Jordan Young and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Luna Jinks.

In this grand finale, hosts Sydney Hsu and Sara Winick say their goodbyes and give updated lists of their current favorite shows. Listen along and compare the new lists to those from the very first episode! 

To all the loyal listeners, it has been a great run, but all good things must come to an end. However, just like some of your favorite TV shows, a second season is never truly out of the question.

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