Employment crisis averted

Residence directors get reinstated with health benefits after community unites

Residence directors feared they may lose their benefits, such as health insurance, as a result of cuts. GRAPHIC BY HALEY KEIZUR/FOGHORN.

Ethan Tan

Staff Writer

Editors Note: The original version of this story was revised to include comment from the University about USF Workers United’s letter to President Paul Fitzgerald and USF Workers United’s collaboration with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

With a pandemic still raging across all 50 states and multiple parts of the world, the normal way of life has changed for many. Among these changes is the loss of several million jobs and subsequent loss of health benefits, which are especially important amid this pandemic and the political fight over the future of healthcare in America. USF is no exception to this; the University is currently undergoing its own pandemic-induced economic hardship and considered changing the employment statuses and cutting the health benefits of some of its most entry-level employees as a savings measure.

Following pushback from an unprecedented uniting force of USF employees, made up of every labor union on campus, the University reversed course on its decision to change the employment status of seven residence directors (RDs) from full-time to part-time employees. Had it not been reversed, this switch would have caused the suspension of health insurance benefits for the group of seven and possibly affected the immigration status of one RD.

On Sept. 11, the department of Student Housing and Residential Education (SHaRE) administrators sent a letter to the RDs notifying them that they would have their weekly work hours reduced from 37.5 to 15 hours a week (a 60% reduction), effective Oct. 1.  The change would have placed them in a temporary, part-time status that would eliminate their benefits, including “medical dental, vision, and EAP (employee assistance program) health insurance benefits (if applicable),” on Oct. 31, according to a letter signed by SHaRE Senior Director Torry Brouillard-Bruce. However, this decision was recounted Oct. 7 after SHaRE reinstated full-time employment and benefits to all the RDs affected.

Despite the reversal, many are still frustrated that this decision was made in the first place, citing a lack of transparency over the ongoing budget crisis that the University is facing and the deterioration of communication from administration and top leaders in SHaRE. 

Two RDs told the Foghorn that they felt blindsided by the decision to reduce hours and change their employment status. RDs were not authorized by SHaRE to comment on the record and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.

“We were under the impression that we were going to get furloughed, which means we experience a reduction in hours, but we still get to keep our benefits,” one RD said. “But then we got the HR [human resources] letter on Sept. 11, that was like, ‘Oh, you have your hours being reduced,’ mentioning nothing about a furlough. [The letter] basically just says, ‘your hours are gonna be reduced and you’re losing all your benefits.’”

Furloughs differ from a change in employment status, as furloughs are an order from an employer to take a leave of absence for a certain period of time as available work is reduced. While furloughed, employees continue to retain benefits such as health insurance. The University utilized this option toward the end of the 2019-20 academic year and over the summer, when certain employees were furloughed with differing percent-reductions in hours.

Emails, which were obtained by the Foghorn, between all the RDs who were hired earlier this year and SHaRE displayed a mutual understanding between both parties that furloughs were to be expected, given the University’s financial state. 

The RDs were subject to the last-minute change because the University’s furlough program officially ended Sept. 30, according to an email from Brouillard-Bruce. 

Prior to the decision, RDs had met and communicated with SHaRE senior staff, including Brouillard-Bruce, on multiple occasions to discuss how their work and compensation might be impacted. The earliest record of this communication that the Foghorn could confirm was Aug. 14.  None of the RDs, however, expected the  leap from furlough to a change in employment status. 

With the announcement came a slew of emails from RDs trying to understand why SHaRE had made the change. In an email exchange between one RD and Brouillard-Bruce on Sept. 16, the RD pleaded with Brouillard-Bruce to know why SHaRE had not communicated to RDs such crucial information about potentially reduced hours and eliminated benefits. According to the RD’s email, the only action they previously discussed was a 60% furlough.

Julie Orio, vice president of student life, responded to the email, but did not directly address this question or any of the other questions RDs asked. Instead, Orio deferred all questions to University human resources on behalf of Brouillard-Bruce and herself.

When asked about the reasoning behind reducing RD work hours, Kellie Samson, head of media relations for the University, summarized the University’s changes in operations in response to a $60 million loss in revenue. 

“We have been able to reinstate the Residence Directors to full-time status retroactive to October 1st. This will result in no impact to their benefits,” Brouillard-Burce confirmed to the Foghorn in an email.

USF labor unions unite

The decision to reduce hours was reversed Oct. 7 after weeks of organizing from the USF community and a new workers coalition called USF Workers United. The coalition is composed of all labor unions on campus as well as unrepresented workers, such as RDs, who are not part of any union on campus. 

Nat Naylor, San Francisco director of representation for Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 29, leads the coalition. When asked why the group had formed, Naylor responded, “Because what USF is doing is unjust and dangerous.”

Naylor said the school is making “unilateral” cuts without necessary conversations. “That’s what’s happened to this group of workers […] And unfortunately they don’t have a union to have any legal recourse or to force a conversation.”

USF Workers United sent a letter to President Paul Fitzgerald on Sept. 21 regarding the seven RDs, highlighting the effects the change in employment status would have on them. Most notably, that one of the seven would have their immigration status affected, since their eligibility to live and work in the United States is contingent on maintaining full-time employment. An RD told the Foghorn that SHaRE later restored this RD to full-time status due to potential immigration repercussions. 

In addition, the letter called the decision to cut health insurance benefits during a pandemic “reckless.” “Residence Directors live in the dorms, in close proximity with students; therefore, they are at much higher risk for contracting Covid-19,” it said. 

Lastly, the letter pointed out that a reduction in hours meant that RDs would be less available to respond to student crises in the dorms. This responsibility would then fall on the Department of Public Safety, which, the coalition argued, is not properly trained for the mental health crisis and other small issues students may be experiencing due to the pandemic.

“This undermines the caring and compassionate model of residential living that we ought to provide for our students,” the letter said. “As the USF Black Student Union has stated, the USF Public Safety Department ‘is not an anomaly amongst law enforcement and actually operates under the same racist notions as the greater policing system. Black students at the University of San Francisco have documented inappropriate, discriminatory, and undeniably racist encounters with campus officers for years.’ ​Given this, the University should be reducing the use of Public Safety, not expanding their role on campus.”

According to Naylor, at the time of print, the University has not responded to the letter. “Not even an acknowledgement of receipt,” she said over text.

Samson said in an email, “work [to reinstate RDs to full -time] began prior to Natalie Naylor’s letter dated September 21, which we appreciated.”

USF Workers United also worked with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution titled “Supporting University of San Francisco Workers United During COVID-19.” Passed on Sept. 22, the resolution calls for the University to continue offering access to affordable healthcare to faculty and staff members whose employment status has been affected due to COVID-19, negotiate a safe return to campus with all USF bargaining units, observe custodians’ recommendations for a safe re-opening, and prioritize the protection of all USF community members, both workers and students. 

In response to the resolution, Samson noted in an email, “Everyone at USF — including all faculty, staff, and students — is a valued and respected member of our community […] the administration has discussed these measures with union leadership and, as is our practice, bargained in good faith during these challenging times […]  We respect the right of all unions to advocate on behalf of their members, as USF union leadership has done in this case by working with members of the Board of Supervisors on this resolution.”

Naylor said that during the ongoing financial budget crisis, USF has not been transparent about the specifics of financial cuts the University is making. This was reinforced by emails between RDs and Brouillard-Bruce, which asked for the University’s rationale for their decisions regarding the RDs employment. Naylor questioned: “What are your savings goals if you’re really in a fiscal crisis? Why aren’t you rushing to update these documents when you’re harming individual people and groups of people? […] We are attempting to hold USF accountable to quantify the total savings from all furloughs and lay-offs in order to demonstrate that no further furloughs nor lay-offs need occur,” she said. 

Despite the fact that all seven RDs were later reinstated and never lost their benefits, some RDs told the Foghorn there is still a need for the coalition. “Other staff and faculty members are still facing labor grievances,” they said. 

The RDs are guaranteed their full-time employment status and benefits until Dec. 31. The University will deliver a decision about employment and any potential change ups for the spring 2021 semester at a later date.

“I just want to make sure it was noted that everybody is watching USF,” Naylor said.

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