One of the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been its economic fallout, with millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet — and college students, many of whom work part-time jobs while fulfilling their academic responsibilities, have been no exception. Many universities have chosen to follow the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance in order to ease the financial burden that the coronavirus pandemic has put on their students. However, institutions are not required to follow these guidelines, and students such as those in the federal work-study (FWS) program are seeing the impact.
FWS is a need-based program intended to help college students obtain part-time jobs, often at their schools. In turn, the federal government provides institutions with funding for these students’ wages, with some schools being required to match a percentage of this funding. However, provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act have removed matching requirements for nearly all schools (it excludes private, for-profit colleges).
Notably, these provisions also allow universities to pay work-study students for up to one year, regardless of whether or not they are able to perform their job responsibilities remotely due to campus closures. Other Jesuit institutions, such as Marquette University and Creighton University, are following these guidelines, allowing students to be paid their allotted work-study wages through the rest of the academic year, or until the school’s allocated FWS funds have run out.
USF, on the other hand, decided to take a different approach.
In an email sent to student employees earlier this month, the Office of Student Employment announced that USF would not be following these federal guidelines. The email explained, “Since USF believes the personal development, contact, connection, and community that student employment provides is an important part of the educational experience for most student employees, the university has decided instead to create innovative remote-work opportunities that will continue to benefit our students and departments across campus.”
When asked why USF decided against simply paying their work-study students all of their allotted wages, Michael Beseda, vice provost of strategic enrollment management, said in an email, “The easier route, quite frankly, would have been to simply pay students. USF chose to ask departments and supervisors across campus to take on the challenge of ensuring these learning and development avenues continue during the remote period.”
According to Beseda, there are currently 264 students participating in the FWS program at USF. He stated that the University is unable to determine how many of these students are performing tasks outside of their traditional job descriptions in order to fulfill their allotted FWS hours, as supervisors are responsible for assigning these tasks and monitoring workers. But, Beseda said, “It is safe to say nearly all are working remotely.”
Not all in-person jobs transition neatly into remote work. While many work-study students may be able to work remotely, some are finding it difficult to maintain the same number of hours that they used to.
One work-study student, who spoke to the Foghorn on the condition of anonymity, has worked the same on-campus job for three years. When they saw the email stating that the University would not be following the guidelines set out in the CARES Act, the student described themselves as “angry.”
“It felt like USF sent it to me just to show me how much they could have helped me, and then withholding it for reasons that I don’t understand or agree with,” they said in a message. “While the email claimed this choice was made to uphold the USF values of community, all I could think of was how this decision impacts the most vulnerable student workers who are impoverished, without access to a computer or steady Wi-Fi, who would be further impoverished by this choice.”
The student also said that the nature of their job has changed immensely due to the fact that in-person work is now impossible, and described their new responsibilities as “busy work.” Even so, the student has not been able to earn the same wages they would have earned if they were still on campus, or if USF followed the CARES Act’s guidelines.
“I lost my trust in USF to look out for the vulnerable in their community, their student workers on federal work-study,” the student said. They also said that while they were accepted into one of USF’s graduate programs, they are now reconsidering their decision. “As of now, I do not intend to return to USF, since I enrolled for the focus on social justice, and I have witnessed this social injustice at USF’s hands during a global crisis.”
The CARES Act allows universities to use any unused work-study funds for Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOGs) or other emergency student aid. Beseda said that any unpaid funds from work-study wages at USF, “if there are any,” will be used to aid students.
In the same email that announced that USF would not be following the Department of Education’s guidelines for FWS, the Office of Student Employment encouraged students to suggest ideas for remote work. The office is coordinating the effort to match students with jobs via a Google Form sent out to supervisors earlier this month. At the time of publication, 26 students have submitted requests via this form, said Lester Deanes, the assistant vice provost of student engagement.
“Once a match is made, the student, current supervisor and new supervisor are connected to begin working together,” Deanes said in an email. “So far a limited number of students have taken up this opportunity once placed. This work is ongoing to find matches that will work best with a student[‘s] interest and skill set.”