UWL student worker strike called off but covid concerns remain

A strike by a small group of Resident Assistants (RAs) at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse has been called off, although the student workers remain fearful about the potential for a large covid-19 outbreak on campus and are not satisfied by the response from the university’s administration.

Six RAs announced they were taking strike action Thursday over concerns about work conditions in UWL’s residence halls, as students returned to campus this week. They held a rally at UWL on Friday but told The La Crosse Independent that they had decided to “postpone” their brief strike after talking to other student workers.

Four professional Residence Life staff at UWL have already resigned because of concerns that not enough was being done to keep workers and students safe from covid, according to multiple campus sources. Other Residence Life workers have been quarantined after possible exposure to a positive covid case, which occurred before most students had returned to campus.

The six RAs launched a petition drive on Wednesday that has now collected close to 1,500 signatures to raise public pressure on the university to meet their demands, which included $15 an hour hazard pay for student workers, access to better personal protective equipment (PPE), stronger cleaning protocols and rapid-response covid testing.

Vitaliano Figueroa, UWL’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, released a detailed statement in an email on Friday listing the university’s responses to the students’ demands. 

He said the university was unable to meet the demand for $15 an hour hazard pay as 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.” 

“a transformative experiential element”

Another of the demands was that student staff be “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.”

Figueroa responded in his statement by saying that “Student Help employees are considered ‘at-will.’” He added that “the primary goal of our student employment positions is to add a transformative experiential element to student education.”  

The student RAs are expected to work 20 hours a week, or 25 for senior staff, but one said that in reality “the job never stops.” One of the members of the group of six, who met with university officials Thursday, said they were now calling for an open forum with university officials and student and professional workers, where questions about covid and worker safety could be addressed.

Figueroa noted that most duties, although not all, for student and professional live-in staff had been made virtual. He also said, in response to the students’ demands, that additional PPE would be acquired for workers if needed.

In response to the demand for rapid-response testing, Figueroa said that RAs will be tested up to “12 times per individual over the course of the fall 2020 semester.”

The striking RAs said they feel the university’s response to covid has been inadequate and poorly organized, putting them and the wider community at risk. But Figueroa disagrees.

“Claims that UWL has done nothing to protect resident assistants or other Residence Life staff are not only unfounded, but disparaging to staff and faculty who have spent untold hours preparing for our safe return to campus in these unprecedented times,” he said.

Some RAs are concerned that if they take strike action, they could lose their jobs, which could mean they lose the free room and board that come with the positions, students said. They would then have to find a way through financial aid or their own finances to pay for their accommodation.

An RA who spoke to The La Crosse Independent said they felt the university had responded to their demands “with a brick wall with the option that if you don’t like what we are doing then quit and be homeless.”

Classes resume at UWL on Tuesday.

Top photo of a group of RAs on UWL’s campus on Friday by Melissa Baca, who also contributed reporting to this piece. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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