Bring Staff from Behind the Scenes to Center Stage

Last week, the Editorial Board published an editorial titled “Take a Break, You Deserve It,” urging readers to use Mammoth Day as a real day off, not just a day to catch up on work. While we stand by that message, we have come to realize that the piece was not written for the full Amherst community, as it was intended to be, because not everyone received that day off — staff members were required to work on Mammoth Day. 

While students on campus sat in circles on the quad, enjoying fresh pastries and smiling through their masks, among those plating pastries and setting up the rest of the day’s festivities were some of the college’s staff members. As is often the case, the experiences that students and faculty were able to enjoy (and which made for flashy social media fare) could only take place due to the hard work of those without a day off.

The fact that staff members were not given a day off with the rest of the Amherst community on Mammoth Day is not a terribly egregious injustice — staff members are provided paid vacation days, for one. However, Mammoth Day might be read as a symbol of a larger pattern of staff treatment at the college throughout this pandemic. Namely, it represents the level of risk staff face making this semester functional and even enjoyable for students and faculty on campus. 

Throughout this pandemic semester, we, the Editorial Board, have explored the various obligations we have to each other on the institutional and individual levels. Staff support is an important case in this theme of inquiry. 

At the end of September, over a month into our Covid autumn, The Student published an account of the experiences of staff members who face inevitable risk at their workplace each day. For staff at Amherst and elsewhere during the pandemic, the struggle of going physically to work each day creates more stress than just the monotony of the daily grind. Rather, the workplace places them on the frontlines of our national response to the pandemic and in doing so jeopardizes their health and that of their families. This, of course, is an especially precarious circumstance for those staff members who fall in populations that are particularly vulnerable to this virus. 

There is certainly a conversation to be had about whether the administration has done enough to keep staff members safe in this time. However, that conversation is not the focus of today’s editorial.

Rather, we find that the college and we, as its members, have an institutional and individual responsibility to acknowledge the fact that any positive experiences of this semester have come at the cost of the fears and dangers faced by our staff members. Even remote students who wait on library books (or Fall Fest packages) to be delivered to their doorstep are ultimately reliant on the Amherst staff who compose the complex chain of command that makes those resources possible. 

Considering all of the support that staff members provide to this community, it should give us pause to consider that staff take a risk by coming to work to make all of this possible for us. “Ultimately, our safety is our own business and if we die, people will be sad at the funeral and that’s it,” one source told The Student in that September news article. Whatever staff safety measures have already been taken, the sentiment of this quote indicates that there is something wrong — either with culture, policy or both — in staff treatment, and something needs to be done about it. Anyone who puts their life at risk for the benefit of others deserves to be treated with the utmost respect and appreciation. Evidently, that has not been the case this semester.

This takes us back to Mammoth Day. What the Amherst College Instagram does not proudly display is the hours of set-up and clean-up, the hours of staff entering new rooms and coming into distant contact with new people — the hours of potential exposure that staff members endured — which ultimately allowed students and faculty to enjoy themselves.

This is not to say that anyone should feel guilty for enjoying Mammoth Day. After all, last week’s editorial urged you to take a break, and we meant it. However, we all can and should adjust our treatment of staff members so that they don’t end up feeling “totally expendable,” as another source described. 

First and foremost, everyone on campus must remember that their actions have a direct effect on the people next to them, six feet away from them, or even those who are simply in the same room. Students should respect the rules and be especially mindful of the fact that their social decisions could be life or death factors in the health of the people that make that socialization possible. This extends not only to those who ensure that students are fed and dorms are sanitized but also to the staff who have kept libraries, labs, academic departments and beyond functioning and maintaining a semblance of an academic experience.

Also, it might serve the morale of our staff members to provide an equivalent of Mammoth Day where they get to spontaneously take a break. Of course, it might be logistically difficult to offer a collective staff day-off — the fact that we could not go a day without any staff is just a further testament to how essential they are to enabling our everyday lives. However, providing spontaneous breaks for members of different staff branches (e.g. academic department coordinators, custodial workers, Val workers etc.) would be a valuable gesture in demonstrating our community’s care for staff wellbeing. 

If this is definitively not possible though, we at least propose establishing an official day or week (or rolling days or weeks) of staff appreciation. Time periods dedicated to staff appreciation could be the first step of many in making it known just how much we value our staff members. 

These suggestions are, of course, not necessarily the solution to keep staff safe. Rather they aim to address the lack of empathy and appreciation that makes staff members feel that they are risking their health for a community that doesn’t care about their wellbeing. For tangible safety improvement, the administration must step in and improve policy.

Until then, the risks that staff members take each day cannot go unnoticed. We call on each other to recognize that behind the scenes of every pleasant moment and every picturesque social media post is a team of hard-working individuals who are not, by any stretch of the term, expendable.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 10; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 4)