UMass Amherst RAs Say They Were Laid Off, But That's Not What School Officials Call It

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An entrance to UMass-Amherst (Deborah Becker/WBUR)
The University of Massachusetts Amherst will require students, faculty, staff, contractors and visitors to wear face-coverings in all indoor public spaces. (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

Hundreds of resident assistants at UMass Amherst were expected to move into dorms this week. But UMass revised its COVID-19 policy late last week. It allows only a fraction of students to live on campus this fall, including far fewer paid RAs.

The UMass RAs are in a union. The co-chairs — undergraduate students — said the housing decision is good public health policy, though it also lays them off. They should be compensated, they say.

But UMass officials say the RAs, who are full-time students hired to help build community and keep campus life safe, hadn’t started their jobs yet.

This would be the second year UMass Amherst student Marco Maldonado worked as an RA in his dorm. He was banking on moving in on Monday.

“That's what I had in mind; that's what I packed up my stuff for," Maldonado said.

Maldonado's father had taken the day off from work to drive with his son from Somerville to the Amherst campus.

If Maldonado is not among the 21 RAs UMass officials said they will hire by the end of the week — a few hundred fewer than originally lined up — he won't be out on the street, he said.

But the UMass junior counted on the RA job to help pay tuition, he said, and now his academics are more complicated. All his classes are online, and at home, he doesn't have a solid internet connection.

"I’m living with my father," Maldonado said. “Essentially, it's a house, and another family is renting the floor. We are renting the room."

UMass senior Shivani Patel was an RA this summer on campus. She said she was supposed to change rooms Monday and start her fall term RA job.

Patel said she's not sure what she’ll do, but she can't return home to Burlington, Massachusetts — at least not right away. Some family members are immunocompromised.

“I would have to find a place for the month of August, or find a place for the semester,” Patel said.

Another RA living in a sublet had just sold his furniture, expecting to move back into the dorm this week.

Finding affordable and safe off-campus housing so fast felt like an impossible task, other RAs said.

RAs said they've been telling UMass officials for months that because of the pandemic, living in campus dorms this fall wasn’t safe, said James Cordero, a UMass senior and a co-chair of the RA union.

Now their jobs are gone, Cordero said — and UMass isn’t abiding by their bargaining agreement.

"Our contract mandates that if RAs are laid off, that we will not be financially harmed," he said. "We still receive the expected compensation of our position."

But that's not how UMass sees it, Cordero said.

"[They] claim they don't have to follow that part of the contract, because in their view, we are not hired. We are 'appointed' to our positions," Cordero said. He added that the union will take legal action, if necessary, to get UMass to compensate RAs for lost wages.

UMass officials said it's a matter of timing.

Campus spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said in an email that the "RA appointment had not yet commenced for the upcoming academic year."

With fewer students on campus, Blaguszewski said, a much smaller workforce is required. But the school recognizes that some students are dependent on campus housing and dining.

Blaguszewski said these situations will be handled on a case-by case basis.

“Most instances will be accommodated,” he said.

Last week, UMass told all students, RAs included, they could appeal the new housing policy by explaining their "exceptional circumstances" by email.

Maldonado did that over the weekend, he told NEPM Sunday. Then late Monday afternoon, the day he was scheduled to move onto campus, he got an email from UMass saying his appeal had been accepted, and he could live on campus.

It's unclear, though, if he can afford the nearly $4,000 price tag — without his job as an RA.

This article was originally published on August 11, 2020.

This segment aired on August 11, 2020.



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