Guest Post: Blunt Talk from a Student Reviewer

Below is a post from one of our student aid request reviewers, who is obviously less than pleased with the state of things lately.

“I am a WMU student and a part-time employee of the Theatre Department. Like most other student workers, I have been brought down to zero hours as of March 20. I have been wary of the official statements that the university has produced, including the word games surrounding the term “layoff” and the technicalities of health insurance status. I also question the credibility of the “we’re all in this together” narrative; clearly the sacrifices being made aren’t equitable. Dr. Montgomery notes that he and other administrators are donating the imaginary cost of their paid leave (which does not affect their existing salaries) as well as $10,300 to the Student Emergency Relief Fund. While a nice gesture, that would be a drop in the bucket for Dr. Montgomery alone, amounting to around 2% of his annual salary. Meanwhile, non-bargaining employees lose pay that’s already budgeted for and face the uncertainty that comes with COBRA, all during a pandemic. This is inexcusable. 

But absent from all of Western’s statements thus far has been the fate of the student worker. WMU’s student workers have largely been brought down to zero hours, despite the fact that at least some of us could easily do our work from home. I witnessed the journey of a peer:

Following WMU’s announcement of suspension of non-essential services, I had filed for Michigan unemployment online. Given that WMU had been my only employer in the past 18 months, they were the only job I had listed. I gave my reasons for filing unemployment as “Layoff/Temporary shut down due to COVID-19” (this is how unemployment lists it). However, I was immediately denied after filing. When I received my denial letter, it gave the reason as being because I did not make enough money during the past 18 months to qualify. The letter includes a breakdown of my wages as reported by WMU, and it shows that I’ve made no money during at least that past 18 months. I contacted WMU Human Resources, and was told that while they had no idea about why my wages weren’t reported, that WMU does in fact protest unemployment claims filed by student employees, no other reason given beyond student employees are not supposed to work more than 25 hours a week. Which doesn’t apply to me because I’ve never worked more than 25 hours a week at WMU. I was not given further elaboration or explanation. All of this has shown me that WMU has little to no regard for the work of its student employees, and seemingly does not value our efforts.

This student obviously did not meet the income requirement, but the HR quote about protesting claims is interesting. After hearing this, I wondered if any WMU student employees would be eligible for unemployment in the state of Michigan. The WMU student employment guidelines specify that the maximum number of hours a student may work is 25, or 20 for international students. At the designated maximum wage of $10.84/hr, working 25 hours per week results in a quarterly income substantially less than the unemployment eligibility cutoff. It is clear that no student employee makes enough to qualify for unemployment without having a second, off-campus job. International students may face even more difficulty, depending on the terms of their visas and their lower hours cap. I have been surveying student employees about their current situations, and there is widespread confusion about unemployment eligibility. I spoke with a handful of students who had off-campus jobs go down to zero hours as well, and weren’t sure if the lack of a formal layoff would render them ineligible. Would WMU protest their applications out of principle, as the account above suggests? Many students seemed concerned about their ability to pay for necessities including rent, tuition, and food. Several of these had taken up jobs with grocery delivery services, but this is not feasible for many students due to health concerns or lack of transportation. 

Something close to 40% of college students live at or under the poverty line, and are especially vulnerable to the economic crisis that COVID-19 has brought. I should be okay to get by this month if I’m careful, which is why I’m giving to the fund and not taking. I challenge you to consider giving even if you’re concerned about the future, because a life on the line takes precedence over savings, or comfort, or anxiety.  As it turns out, many of us can make do with a lot less. Thank you to the organizers of the fund for putting this together! You are truly stepping up to be the support our community desperately needs.”

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