Student workers face challenges

As Allegheny returns to the familiar rhythm of the semester, student workers find themselves back at work in the midst of a pandemic. Though changes and adaptations have been made, some students think that Allegheny College could do more for employed students.

Emily Kauchak, ‘21, who works in the Carr Hall garden, thinks that the college could do more for low-income students or those hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Historically, Allegheny has been pretty strict with giving away funds and making exceptions, so I don’t think it’s doing everything it can, especially for our students of color and our students who are minorities,” Kauchak said. “A lot of the help that should be provided now is a lot of mental and social help and with the campus being shut down, it’s been a lot harder to reach out and find that.”

For student workers struggling with the current situation, Senior Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions Cornell LeSane recommends speaking with a supervisor or manager about the problems the student is facing.

“One, (students) should connect with the people they are ultimately reporting to in those jobs,” LeSane said. “Make them aware that there are some additional struggles right now with everything going on, would be my recommendation. Secondly, there are resources on campus available for students as well. While I think Allegheny does a great job of trying to outreach and be proactive in catching those, it’s just not going to be possible all the time.”

Kauchak said that, while the school sets high standards for community living, Allegheny doesn’t always live up to those same standards itself.

“Allegheny has always had a great sense of community on campus, and especially when I was an underclassman it really felt like people were reaching out and wanted to get to know you and welcome you into their circles,” Kauchak said. “I think that just because it’s been an expectation for Allegheny, it doesn’t mean that we’re always upholding it. Especially now, with a lot of racial tensions and a lot of fear going on with the pandemic, you can’t just fall back on that and assume it to be there, I think the administration really needs to make an effort to reach out and reclaim the students and re-foster this bond of trust, because just because it’s been their in the past and we have words for it, doesn’t mean that it’s been taken care of.”

Kayleigh Young, ‘21, is a teaching assistant in the visual production department, and thinks that Allegheny has already done what it can to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“I think they’re doing the best they can,” Young said. “There’s only so much that can be done, and I think they are taking those precautions with the cleaning, the contact tracing, and the social distancing”

Provost and Dean of the College, Ron Cole noted that it is still early-on in the semester, and that more improvements may become clearer as the term goes on.

“We’re still early enough in the process that we need to let this play out a little more before we can really figure out what we might do differently.” Cole said.

But Kauchak sees a bigger problem with student employment, one not tied with the current pandemic.

“Allegheny has maintained for a lot of its students a really minimum-wage-for-Pennsylvania, especially for a college campus where students could use a lot of extra help.,” Kauchak said. “The only way we really increase in pay is if you keep working somewhere from your (first year) to your senior year, you might increase somewhat 50 cents. This has been an issue with Allegheny in the past, especially over the summer, as a student gardener, we got paid the same sort of minimum wage as all student workers, while research assistants get paid $10 an hour, and that was tough because over the summer there’s very limited dining options. A lot of pay for people just isn’t sufficient.”

LeSane acknowledges that the system may have problems. However, he mentioned that Allegheny is not working with unlimited resources.

“It’s not a perfect system right now, and if we had an unlimited budget, we’d certainly want to do more,” LeSane said. “We have to be prudent and judicious with the limited resources we have, but I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there are things we can do differently or to make this process better. I’m sure as we make our way through this semester, and get to next semester, we’ll try to be a little bit more diligent in making some of those changes if there are changes we can make within our budget.”

While the Federal Work-Study program receives some federal funding, according to Cole, the vast majority of Allegheny’s student employment is paid for through the college’s own budget.

“Roughly 10 percent of student employment funding is from federal dollars,” Cole said. “90 percent of that funding is truly from our operating budget. And so when we talk about increasing the number of jobs, or the rate of pay for jobs, that means an increase in our operating budget. Then we have to find either (other) things to spend less money on or other revenue to bring in to offset”

And these problems have not gone unnoticed by senior officials in the administration. Cole noted that work was already underway to reform the employment system – particularly the application process and student wages –  when COVID-19 shut down Allegheny last spring.

“This was going to be happening before the pandemic struck,” Cole said. “We were beginning to look at the whole student employment process: the application process and how jobs are posted to try to help to make that a more accessible program for all of our students.”

One common misconception that only students enrolled in the Federal Work-Study program are able to be employed by Allegheny this semester.

“I think there’s misinformation out there with regards to the college putting a priority on trying to make sure we, first and foremost, offer positions to those who qualify for federal work-study, putting a priority on those students,” LeSane said. “But that’s actually something we’ve always done. I think we’ve over-emphasized it this cycle, just making sure we are trying to do our best to help those who are possibly the most vulnerable on campus with employment opportunities first and foremost. Now, that does not mean students who don’t qualify for federal work-study can’t still get jobs on campus. . .We only have limited jobs on campus, (so) those are given to those who may need them the most.”

LeSane also said around three dozen jobs were still posted on the student employment page, and encouraged students to apply if they needed the extra income.

“I think it’s important for students to know that if they are looking for jobs they should go to the student employment page and look at what those jobs are and see which ones may be of interest to them,” LeSane said.

Despite the issues in the current student employment system, Kauchak is hopeful for the future.

“Just because you criticize an institution, does not mean you don’t have faith in it,” Kauchak said. “I’m very proud to be a Gator, and I think Allegheny has a fantastic reputation as an institution. But, there’s improvements that need to be made, especially for incoming  (first-year students) and incoming classes. We’ve done a good job, and I think it’s us that needs to make sure we do better. “