Various student employment situations arise in the transition to remote work

Various student employment situations arise in the transition to remote work

Izzy Gravano, Arts Editor

On March 23, Vice President of Administration and Finance David Wheaton announced in an email to Macalester student employees that the college would be transitioning to a new student employment program, in effect laying off all student workers, distributing a special payment to those who need financial aid and re-hiring a select number of workers. 

Employment services estimates that the college decreased its student worker population from approximately 1100 students to around 300, re-hiring workers needed to keep academics and remote support as consistent and efficient as possible. 

“Instead of thinking of it as student employment, we’re thinking of it as just employment,” Assistant Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid Brian Lindeman ’89 said.

All students that are eligible for the special payment correlated to their financial aid package received payments equal to 108% of the student’s earnings thus far. The sum of the special payment, and the earnings a student had already received, is limited to the student’s spring 2020 semester work study award. Eligibility for special payments depends on enrollment, a student employment award present in the financial aid package, earnings of at least $0.01 in the spring semester and not yet having reached full work study award earnings. 

However, special payments had no impact on re-hiring for remote work.

The decision to end previous student employment was not an easy one; senior staff acted quickly after President Brian Rosenberg’s March 16 announcement that the college would continue the semester remotely and encourage students to return home. 

“The decisions that are made related to how, what and why are more broadly shared,” Director of Employment Services Bob Graf said. “It’s got a global impact on the environment so it’s become more collaborative.”

Representatives from a range of departments and offices within the administration shared input as to how student employment should go forward. But ultimately, short-term financial, safety and efficiency concerns were the basis for the decision. 

“We ended the need-based student employment program and shifted to the questions: now that the traditional student employment program has ended, what are the jobs that can continue? Where is it safe?” Lindeman said. “And then from a budgetary standpoint, [we] prioritized positions that are essential for various reasons.” 

“We’ve had to find the places where students help can enable us to provide the level of service we want to be Macalester,” Graf said.

Despite any extenuating circumstances students may have, the college is unwilling and unable to review situations on a case-by-case basis, citing capacity and potential for increased confusion.

“We wanted to be sensitive, and the special payment needed to be based on the pattern the student had established in terms of the number of hours they were working,” Lindeman said. 

For some students, the hours worked before the last day of employment on March 30 may not have been representative due to illness, seasonal nature of work or job assignments slowing down due to COVID-19.

Additional components of financial aid such as earnings limit increases — where a supervisor can request for a student’s work study award to be raised if there is more work to be done — cannot be appealed with the special payment.

“It’s a limited approach,” Lindeman said. “It is difficult because this is not usually the way we approach financial aid but because of how rapidly we needed to do it, and because it was so important to get the money to students as quickly as possible, we made a decision that we were not going to adjust payments based on special issues. There’s not a question that those are legitimate issues, it’s just we didn’t feel we had the capacity to make, I think, for the 989 eligible students, special decisions.”

Other options considered in place of the special payment program included doing nothing, ending student employment without distributing payments or introducing augmented loans.

The Emergency Aid Program and Macalester Student Relief Fund remain intact, and Lindeman points to those options for students who are still facing financial hardships.

“It was important for us to choose a more generous option,” Lindeman said.

The transition to a new normal of student employment has meant that over 800 students have stopped working and many of them worked hard to finish projects and duties before the last day of employment on March 30. Employment supervisors were asked to request for necessary re-hires to continue after March 30, but only around 300 were accepted. 

This arrangement has led to supervisors and departments throughout the Macalester community — and off-campus employers associated with the Civic Engagement Center — being left without the extra help that students provide. Research across campus has stalled, and faculty who had been working with students paid by the college have also lost assistance.

In addition to the support that students provide, employers and supervisors miss the spirit of student workers.

“The best part of my job is the work that I do and the time that I spend with student employees,” English department coordinator Jan Beebe said. 

Beebe requested that every one of the 10 student workers in the English department be re-hired both for the department’s sake, and for the students’, but those requests were not granted.  

“I was disappointed because I thought [work] would be good for the student workers and for the department, but I totally understand that drastic decisions had to be made for equity purposes, and [for] many other reasons I totally respect,” Beebe said.

Now, most of the re-hired students work in either academics or finance. 

“Under normal circumstances there are roles that are needed that just aren’t needed right now,” Graf said. “The work that students are doing now is to be helpful, and needs to be maintained to provide the highest level of functionality given the environment.”

For the students that are now part-time employees of the college, their remote situations look a little different, too. Preceptorships have been decreased to six hours a week from the previous nine, and if two or more preceptors had been sharing classes, only one preceptor may have been re-hired. Preceptors working for class credit have not been impacted by the transition.

For tutors in the MAX center, their hours have remained the same, if not increased, as they can work up to 20 hours a week. However, there’s no guarantee that students will utilize the time tutors are paid for. 

“You could go the entire semester without tutoring someone, it really depends on who shows up,” Gabi Isaac-Herzog ’22 said. 

There are new academic needs with remote learning and changes in syllabi that tutors can support for both faculty and students.

“Students might be struggling with academic things they weren’t struggling with while at Macalester, that’s where tutors can come in to help keep academics as consistent as possible in a really tumultuous time,” Isaac-Herzog said.

Outside of the academic realm of student employment, the Macalester Fund has re-hired many workers. The Macalester Fund typically raises money to supplement financial aid and competitive teacher salaries, among other things, but now it has shifted its focus to helping community members struggling due to the current environment. From a workers’ perspective, Asher de Forest ’21 sees the benefit in what students can offer in fundraising phone calls and other campaigns.

“The work is always going to be somewhat personalized, and it’s going to be good for people to hear from students who say, ‘hey, this is affecting me directly,’” de Forest said.

Despite uncertainty and challenging news for employers and student workers, staff reiterate that Macalester is making the best of the temporary chaos for everyone’s well-being.

“I know how dedicated our leaders are to make decisions that are in the best interest of Macalester and the best interest of our students, faculty and staff,” Graf said.

Moving forward, Graf confirmed in an email to student workers on April 14 that hiring for summer positions will continue as planned with managers posting openings on JobX. However, all positions will be remote in nature, and cannot be included in financial aid packages. Some arrangements for the fall are continuing as planned, while others are to be determined.