Returning and prospective Community Advisors (CAs) received an updated position description for the 2021-2022 academic year on Wednesday, May 12, a week after the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) sent them the initial draft of the contract. The primary adjustments made included changes to and clarifications of the on-call system, as well as increased compensation for CAs with greater experience and those working on the first-year quad. While organizers of the Union of Student Workers at Amherst College (USWAC) and CAs were generally happy that some changes were made, many recognized this as just the start to further advocacy and improvement.
The modifications to the position description came after objections from many CAs to the stipulations and compensation outlined in the initial position description sent to them on May 5. CAs strongly protested the proposed on-call duties, which would have involved monitoring a landline in a designated location on campus for an unspecified number of hours each week, instead of using mobile phones like before the pandemic. In adding responsibilities to the role with no change in compensation, the contract was seen by many CAs as inconsiderate of the commitments they balance as students and the day-to-day work that goes into being a CA. This opposition ultimately culminated in the launch of USWAC and their inaugural campaign, which called on students to not sign CA contracts with ResLife in an effort to demand better working conditions and compensation.
In the email containing the revised position description that was sent to prospective and returning CAs, Senior Associate Dean of Students Dean Gendron wrote that, in response to CA feedback, on-call duties were changed to be “partially untethered” from the designated CA Offices that CAs will be expected to report to. He elaborated that mobile Duty Phones will be maintained for on-duty CAs, which will allow them to communicate when conducting rounds or responding to complaints away from the office. The new contract also moved on-call shifts an hour earlier, changing them from 10 p.m.-2 a.m. to 9 p.m.-1 a.m., and clarified that, contingent on a fully staffed CA team, CAs will be on call for an average of two days per month.
Another modification that sought to address student grievances was the change in the remuneration scheme. While the baseline annual stipend remains $5,000 for first-time CAs, CAs who have worked in the role for at least 2 semesters will receive $5,500 a year, and those in their third year of being a CA will receive $6,000 a year. Additionally, CAs assigned to work on the first-year quad will receive an extra $1,000 added to the respective base stipend.
These new differences in compensation were meant to acknowledge the “increased time associated with working with first-year students, and the fact that returning CAs offer additional support to new CAs,” said Dean of Students Liz Agosto in a statement to The Student. She also confirmed that ResLife does not anticipate making any more adjustments to the position description for next year, barring any changes in decisions regarding Covid safety regulations for the fall.
President of USWAC Molly Sanderson ’22 described the changes as “a definite victory” for the union. “We were all celebrating, we were excited to see that some change had been made,” she said.
“I feel like it was a very big win,” echoed PR Chair of USWAC Shoshanna Peifer ’23. “It was so exciting to get that email and just see the direct impact of what we had done.”
Sanderson and Peifer both also acknowledged that the new contract was by no means perfect and that there were still a lot of things about it they were dissatisfied with. If anything, however, this has only invigorated the organization in their work to advocate even better for student workers.
“We’ve officially ended this particular campaign, but that doesn’t mean that our work as a union is anywhere close to over,” said Ella Peterson ’22, bargaining chair for USWAC. “[The modified contract] really proves to all of the people who pitched in and helped support our efforts and agreed to hold off on signing contracts, that this sort of collective action really can work. I would say that this is a big rallying cry for us moving forward into next year.”
CAs planning to return to the role next year similarly expressed mixed feelings about the changes made to the position description, with many acknowledging the efforts ResLife had made to address student concerns, but wishing that the changes were more substantial and in line with student demands.
“I do appreciate that ResLife specified how many times we’d be expected to be on call, that they’re trying to be a little bit more transparent,” said Julia Zabinska ’22, a CA in King Dormitory. She expressed reservations, however, about the utility of the on-call system, noting that “[your own residents] know you better, they trust you more and they’ll come to you with their concerns.”
“I’m not certain if I’ll have that sort of impact in dorms that are not my own,” she explained.
Kate Redmond ’23, a CA in the Greenway D Dormitory, found it frustrating that despite allowing CAs to use mobile phones while on call, the modified system still required them to stay in a designated office during their shift. “That part just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “It kind of feels like a slap in the face, like, ‘We listen to you,’ but still not fully.”
CAs responded more favorably to the increases in compensation, particularly for first-year quad CAs. “That they’re compensating people for the amount of work they’re doing is a big deal,” said Zabinska. “[It’s] definitely like a needed change for people who are putting in above and beyond effort to help make the first-years feel included and welcomed their first year here.”
“[First-year quad CAs] clearly do more than us,” added Lorraine Oloo ’23, a CA for Moore Dormitory. “These are new people who are trying to navigate college for the first time, so they have more questions [and] they need the CAs more than [upper-class] students do. So I think [the extra compensation is] fair.”
Oloo noted nonetheless that the pay increases fall short of student demands to be compensated with the equivalent of room and board. “I’m glad something was done. I mean, it’s better than nothing,” she said. “But I personally still feel like this school can definitely do better and pay all of us above $7,000.”
For Zabinska, USWAC’s work has made her more optimistic about the possibility that these demands will be addressed in the future. “[The union] definitely keeps the lines of communications open between the CAs and ResLife, which is really important,” she said. “I think there’s good work being done on both sides, and things are moving towards a better direction than they used to be.”
“If anyone wants to sign contracts with ResLife, go ahead and do it,” encouraged Sanderson. “We are excited to have you on our team, and we hope that once we get here, you’ll join our union.”