RAs: A love-hate relationship

Photo illustration by Brian Burke and Aleah Green.

Universities around the world rely on resident assistants (RAs) to connect incoming freshmen, control ongoing parties and cultivate friendly living situations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, these responsibilities suddenly changed. A job that once revolved around relationships quickly centered on case exposures and safety precautions. 

When the fall semester started, Housing & Residence Life was involved in a number of controversies: staggered move-in dates, designated quarantine spaces and eventually, contactless food deliveries. Before faculty even resumed in-person instruction, the Arizona Daily Sun documented an alleged outbreak among RAs. These concerns all stem from the basic question about whether face-to-face coursework is worth the risk during a global health crisis, and more specifically, whether RAs should have to deal with the potential consequences. 

The Lumberjack reached out to a number of RAs regarding a comprehensive article about this semester, and many were unwilling to violate their contract agreements by speaking to the media. While respecting this decision, the paper’s editorial team managed to find one current and one previous RA to address these developments. 

 

Mandatory testing and contactless food delivery

Similar to how all on-campus residents were required to test negative for COVID-19 before moving in, testing was eventually made mandatory for RAs. However, an anonymous RA said this decision was both unorganized and unprepared just weeks before classes resumed. 

According to an email sent to RAs from Housing & Residence Life on July 24 — three days before training began the following Monday — “You do NOT need to get tested prior to your arrival.”

Additionally, the source said July 27’s training date was announced via email in late June, approximately one month before the RAs’ employment started. From the anonymous perspective, this decision was announced slightly too late — especially considering the pandemic. 

Isaiah Gutierrez, an RA at McDonald Hall during the 2019-20 school year, decided to forfeit his new position at Allen Hall in late August. However, Gutierrez still had the chance to work for Housing & Residence Life before the pandemic ever started, in addition to quitting after it spread. He said the administration’s disorderly response to COVID-19, specifically regarding mandatory testing, was conceivable given the difficulty of this situation. 

“It’s very much believable that administration was disorganized, and that communication could have served to guide RAs in a better direction,” Gutierrez said.

Once students, faculty and staff settled into the semester, case numbers crept up around the local community. According to the university’s data dashboard, COVID-19 peaked the week of Sept. 14 with 277 confirmed cases and a 9.3% positivity rate. These figures could have prompted Housing & Residence Life’s decision to relegate all of Campus Heights and the first floor of the Honors College as designated quarantine spaces, which raised additional controversy. 

While students isolate at these two locations, along with other on- and off-campus facilities, they utilize contactless food deliveries. During 14-day isolation periods with three daily meals, a total of 42 servings are theoretically allotted to everyone in quarantine. 

Before the pandemic, these distributions were never part of RAs’ job descriptions, but their contracts were updated shortly into the fall semester. 

“The newly implemented adjustment for contactless delivery was shoddily put together and created a lot of pushback with RAs since it seemed dangerous and could potentially expose them to COVID-19,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t believe the adjustment was fair, and it added new responsibilities and stress for RAs who aren’t receiving compensation.”

 

Desk assistants and compensated student workers

Before the 2020-21 academic year, desk assistant (DA) duties were another aspect of the RA position that have since changed. The anonymous source said all RAs were previously granted automatic DA employment in their own residence halls for approximately 10 hours per week. However, interested RAs are now required to apply for the position — and they can never work in their own buildings. 

The source said one theme within Housing & Residence Life, and generally the university’s higher administration, is enforcing separate duties that are incompatible. For example, one commitment is when RAs have on-call shifts from 7:00 p.m. Friday to 7:00 p.m. Sunday, and they are supposed to stay within 15 minutes of their halls. 

However, if an RA is on call at Mountain View Hall and working as a DA at South Village Apartments, the commute is potentially longer than 15 minutes. Traveling between north and south campus is time-consuming, the source added, but some RAs are expected to make this trip.

When freshmen visit the front desks to seek advice or receive encouragement, recognizing the employee is sometimes an added benefit. 

“If a regular DA, or an RA from another hall, has a resident come up to them crying, they don’t know about that resident’s life,” the source said. “How are they supposed to handle that situation?”

In contrast, Gutierrez explained this newly implemented structure allows workers in Housing & Residence Life to experiment with other halls, while also keeping the environment more respectful and professional.

“Regarding the DA position, I hold no grudge with the decision made, as it was for the purposes that eliminated potential bias with residents and eliminated individuals who wanted the position for easy money,” Gutierrez said.  

During previous school years, when RAs also worked as DAs, the $10 student minimum wage was the only form of financial compensation they received. Housing & Residence Life still provides complimentary housing and meal plans, but the source said they “don’t cost the university anything.” In this regard, RAs were described as “compensated student workers” who lack the typical protections of regular employees. 

This label parallels the United States Department of Labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act, as referenced by the business and litigation law firm Husch Blackwell.

According to the firm’s website, which cited the Department of Labor’s Field Operations Handbook, “Students serving as residence hall assistants or dormitory counselors, who are participants in a bona fide educational program, and who receive remuneration in the form of reduced room or board charges ... are not employees under the Act.”

However, RAs’ standing as untraditional workers could change following a decision from the National Labor Relations Board in 2017. In an unprecedented ruling, regional director Sean Marshall declared the 110 RAs at George Washington University do fall under the definition of employees. 

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, RAs and community development assistants benefitted from a partnership with the United Auto Workers in 2002, which ended with unionization and solidified the position as “organized labor.” 

“Arizona is a right-to-work state, and I feel like Arizona’s public universities exploit that loophole so much,” the source said. “RAs really aren’t employees, so they don’t have employee rights — they’re just workers.” 

Hypothetically, if every RA at a dormitory went on strike, the source said NAU could terminate everyone involved, RHDs included. On a campus-wide level, if all RAs around the university protested, administrators could potentially relieve the entire group and consider hundreds of prospective replacements.

Unionizing is one of many options, and the source said they are willing to pay monthly dues — potentially around $40 — to ensure more transparency and security within the position. This change would allow RAs to be considered more like regular employees and less like expendable workers, in addition to affording more leverage. Otherwise, the source recommended that everyone stand together and continue effectively communicating. 

 

FERPA and HIPAA

A number of laws around the U.S. offer protection and guarantee privacy for personally identifiable information. Among these stipulations is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which prevents personal details — names, phone numbers, addresses and more — from being released without consent.

NAU, ASU and UA all publish COVID-19 case statistics on a regular basis, but these numbers are compliant with HIPAA because they avoid identifying specific individuals who contracted the disease. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, however, one exception is that personal information can be shared “to notify a public health authority in order to prevent or control spread of disease.”

Although NAU and other universities are separate from public health authorities, some have speculated about whether RAs should receive updates regarding COVID-19 infections — and more specifically, who has it.

Jason Chang, a graduate resident student at Cornell University, informed Ithaca Times about the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Ivy League’s dormitories. 

“Due to HIPAA laws that guarantee the protection of personal health-related information, Chang said he worries that when a case does appear in the dorms, residents and staff won’t be informed who or where the case was located, leaving residents wandering the halls unbeknownst of the risk to their safety,” Ithaca Times reported. 

A syllabus from EPS 406 — Resident Assistant Pre-Service Training Course — listed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as a required portion of online training. FERPA is comparable to HIPAA in the academic world, and although this syllabus was from spring 2017, the anonymous source said no HIPAA training was included this academic year during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, FERPA also prevents the public disclosure of private facts by shielding education records. At the age of 18, these protections transfer from parents to eligible students and continue indefinitely. 

RAs at public and private universities alike are often educated about the invasion of privacy, and during the age of COVID-19, the anonymous source said HIPAA training should also be provided. After all, they explained that delivering food and monitoring parties could risk exposure. 

An article in The Wall Street Journal outlined the story of 20-year-old Janae Stevenson, a former community assistant at ASU’s Manzanita Hall. Community assistants are the university’s equivalent of RAs, but Stevenson decided to resign and return home. In Tempe, training protocols were allegedly similar to NAU’s when they hardly considered the pandemic. 

“The assistants said they received training in how to address mental health concerns, how to handle incidents of sexual assault and how to connect students to resources on campus, but many said they didn’t receive training in how to handle students who test positive or quarantine on their floors,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “The university said in a statement that is because the role doesn’t include handling positive COVID-19 cases.” 

In contrast, Gutierrez said he is a “firm advocate for privacy,” but administrative action should immediately take place for individuals who test positive. He added it would be unfair to disclose such personal information on a case-by-case basis.

 

The message

Back in March, no one expected the COVID-19 to spread so severely and suddenly around the world. However, the pandemic became increasingly deadly over the summer, and according to data from Johns Hopkins University, the disease has killed over 220,000 people in the U.S. and more than 1.1 million globally. Although numerous vaccines are currently in different stages of development, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned U.S. citizens to cancel Thanksgiving plans amid resurging case figures. 

COVID-19 has infected nearly 40 million people, but the source said NAU expected the disease to “go away” this summer. They added that administrators blame RAs for a lack of policy enforcement, but instead, the university itself needs more disciplinary structure for holding its community accountable.

“They’re not being serious about anything: the people in Central Quad who are maskless and playing volleyball, the potentially positive students walking around in public spaces, the frats and sororities,” the source said. “They’re blaming them, but they’re not being serious about it.”

Oppositely, Gutierrez explained he forfeited his position at Allen Hall because of his immediate supervisor, not the university’s higher administration. 

“I’m not sure how much I am allowed to share, but I quit due to having issues in terms of supervision and the handling of staff and policy,” Gutierrez said. “The administration and my staff were excellent, but the opposition I had with my supervisor led me to resign from the position … I know I made the right decision.”

Although Gutierrez shared his positive experiences with the university’s administration, the anonymous source expressed different opinions. They referenced a common statement Housing & Residence Life uses, which prioritizes workers as people, then students and finally RAs. However, they said the opposite is true: RAs are always asked to be RAs first. 

“To residents reading this, we’re trying our best to keep you safe,” the source said. “We don’t want to write you up, and we don’t want you to get in trouble — we want you to be safe and healthy. The people who are in charge are just as scared as you are, and if no one talks about it, then nothing will get better.” 

They added that Housing & Residence Life, along with the university’s administration, uses fear tactics to prevent RAs from speaking up. If an employee knows something is fundamentally wrong — and decides to question or publicize it — he or she is unlikely to be rehired. Ultimately, RAs’ jobs are always “held above our heads.” 

The anonymous RA said they love most of the position’s duties, especially meeting and connecting with residents. Although the source violated their contract agreement by speaking to the media, they explained that actually, the position is about keeping students safe.

“I can claim a high ground, and I can pretend — at the end of the day — that my job is more important than student lives,” the source said. “But it’s not. My job is about student lives.”