CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa RAs demand 'hazard pay' for COVID-19 threats

Nearly 700 students cancel residence hall contracts in one month

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — Nearly 700 University of Iowa students in less than a month canceled their contracts to live in the residence halls and a group of resident assistants whose duties now include dealing with COVID-19 protocols is demanding hazard pay.

What UI officials call a “small group of RAs” launched an online petition Sept. 21 seeking “additional pay for performing hazardous duty or work involving physical hardship” in their jobs as leaders in the dorms.

The RAs, among other things, reported:

• Delivering meals to infected students living on isolation floors in residence halls, “which requires us to enter the isolation hallway and physically wait until we watch the student take their food to ensure it is delivered;”

• Helping COVID-19 positive students move into isolation rooms;

Cleaning “biohazardous material, including vomit and blood,” from dorms, leading to an increased risk of coming into contact with COVID-19;

And enforcing a one-guest-per-person policy in residence hall rooms “by asking additional students to leave the room, including when those students are intoxicated and refusing/unable to wear masks or social distance from the resident assistant and others.”

Since early July, 21 UI RAs have resigned — including 10 before the start of classes, according to University Housing and Dining Director Von Stange. Because UI Housing and Dining builds a robust pool of alternates during the recruitment process, most vacancies are filled in under two weeks. The UI currently has 153 of its needed 156 RA positions filled, Stange said, noting offers have been extended to potential hires.

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“We know this year has presented additional challenges for our RAs, just as it has for all our employees,” Stange told The Gazette in an email. “And as student employees, we are paying close attention to their well-being. We have modified (are continuing to modify and adapt) our practices to ensure both staff health and safety and student support.”

The UI has seen a sharp uptick in residence hall students canceling housing contracts so far in this semester — different from any before it due to COVID-19 and the complexities it created.

Between the start of dorm move-in Aug. 14 and the extended deadline to request contract release without penalty Sept. 10, UI Housing and Dining processed 696 cancellations. It has processed another 15 since, for a total of 711.

Of the 696 students who canceled before deadline, 378 have said they plan to return to live on campus in the spring, Stange said.

Although the novelty of this semester makes comparison difficult, Stange said, 133 students canceled their housing contracts between Aug. 17 and Dec. 21 last fall.

The cancellations bring the UI residence hall population to 4,810 students — well below its typical capacity of 6,742. This year the capacity is lower due to the elimination of most quad and triple rooms and the need to reserve residence hall space for isolating and quarantining students.

On Sept. 4, the 10th day of classes, Stange said 5,218 students were living in the halls.

“This is a highly atypical year,” he said in the email. “Housing contracts are typically binding seven days after they are issued, meaning that any cancellation after that time carries a financial penalty. However, given the dynamic nature of the fall semester, we continued to extend that deadline.”

UI Housing and Dining, according to campus officials, prepared extensively for this fall — affecting student residents and resident assistants. All students, according to Stange, received protective equipment kits upon arrival, and RAs recently got a second one — meaning they’ve each received “four reusable cloth masks, six disposable masks, and two face shields.”

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He confirmed RAs are tasked with educating students about COVID-19 polices, directing those moving into isolation, prepping a room for “contactless check-in and contactless meal delivery,” and he said the assistants have access to gloves and disposable masks in every building.

“Room prep involves going into a clean, unoccupied student room to place the welcome bag and supplies for incoming students and to put the room keys in the room for the incoming student,” Stange said. “Contact is largely avoided, but if it occurs it is brief and minimal.”

RAs in their petition argue UI officials did not consider “the full scope of the situation resident assistants would be facing during these unprecedented times.”

“From the unsafe conditions we are working in, to the additional duties directly related to COVID-19 we have taken on during this academic year, we require and deserve additional income in the form of hazard pay in addition to our regular stipend,” according to the petition, which had 123 signatures Tuesday.

In a letter earlier this summer, a group of “concerned resident assistants” urged UI administrators to take actions before the fall semester. Those demands included re-evaluating “the effectiveness of your plan to enforce safety and COVID-19 related requirements in the residence halls by formally incorporating the RA perspective.”

In response to the more recent petition, Stange said UI Housing and Dining staff members are “working to address RA concerns and will communicate directly with the RA staff.”

Responding to questions about resignations among Iowa State University resident assistants — which the school calls community advisers — officials earlier this month said they’ve had two since the beginning of August and none related to COVID-19.

ISU’s Department of Residence is reporting a full staff of 169 community advisers, communications manager Brittany Rutherford said.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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