Why Student Employees Can’t Seem to Catch a Break

A window into student housing department working conditions 

Student Housing usually employs up to 140 Community Assistants, but currently only 115 CAs work due to “challenges in finding candidates.” PHOTO BY BEAU TATTERSALL/SAN FRANCISCO FOGHORN

Student employees within USF’s Student Housing Department work under semi-strict, and at times problematic, conditions. The Foghorn acquired an interview with IA, an internal source who became vocal about issues facing student residential employees, most notably Community Assistants, or CAs. The Foghorn has respected IA’s request for anonymity, as revealing their name would jeopardize their position at the University. 

From break violations to safety concerns and neglect of overtime pay, IA has allegedly seen all these issues firsthand as ​​a manager within Desk Operations under Student Housing, since they started the role in July 2021. 

In the past month, the Foghorn interviewed several past and present Student Housing Department employees, mostly CAs, to detail their own experiences of working in the department. Additionally, the Foghorn spoke with the Office of Student Employment, Human Resources (HR), and Student Housing Department Senior Director Torry Brouillard-Bruce for their response to the allegations. 

Breaking Time

Among the issues IA first noticed was that many CAs were not taking any breaks during their shifts. IA said this included restroom, rest, and meal breaks. For reference, CAs are responsible for managing the front desk of USF’s residence halls, mainly checking residents’ IDs as they enter the building.

According to California labor laws, employees have a right to at least a 10-minute paid break for four hours of work and an unpaid, 30-minute meal break for work of more than five hours. The University’s Student Employment Policy acknowledges this and even adds that “USF grants a standard 15-minute break for each 4 hours worked.” The policy does note, though, that if a shift is less than 6 hours, “the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee.” 

In the Community Assistant Employment Contract obtained by the Foghorn, a “Meal Break Waiver Form” is included for student employees to sign. It specifically states, should they sign it, they are giving up the required unpaid 30-minute meal break if the shift is less than 6 hours. Even with the waiver consent, CAs are still required to take an unpaid 30-minute break for work of more than 6 hours according to the contract, University policy, and state law. 

However, IA alleges that prior to their formal complaint, it was common for students to work their shifts without any type of break. Multiple past and present CAs confirm this allegation. Former CA Kobi Miller, who graduated in December 2021, said “technically we are not allowed breaks due to us having to be there for 24/7.” She clarified that protocol was for CAs to call whoever was the Resident Assistant (RA) on duty to take over the desk while they used the bathroom, “otherwise, you were basically there for the entire shift.” 

IA brought up the no-breaks issue to the Office of Student Employment, much to their surprise.  “It seems like this was never brought to her attention before,” IA said. In response, Student Employment promised there would be an investigation, however, IA did not receive any word about the complaint before following up “a month and a half later.” By then, the Office of Student Employment and Human Resources (HR) had notified the Student Housing Department about the issue. 

In an email to the Foghorn, Assistant Vice Provost of Student Financial Services Angelika Williams, said that, “Currently, the matter appears to be isolated. All USF employees are informed about Department of Labor laws and regulations. Student Employment issues training to all USF employees who supervise students.” 

The individual in charge of the investigation did not answer the Foghorn’s inquiries regarding the situation prior to this issue going to print. 

Brouillard-Bruce confirmed he met with Student Employment and HR after the complaint was shared with his department in early February. The Student Housing Senior Director revealed that the “Meal Waiver Form” had been part of the contract for the last six years. In explaining this clause in the contract, Brouillard-Bruce said, “​​Those who sign it are voluntarily saying they are willing to waive their break period(s) while working. This is a separate document in the hiring packet and requires its own separate signature.” 

Some student employees reported signing the waiver because they felt that they needed to to qualify for the position, despite the form being voluntary. 

Senior Sly Pellas, a CA at Lone Mountain North, said there was a noticeable change in policy for breaks in the last year. When she began working in the fall, she said her supervisors told her to put up a sign if she needed to go on a bathroom break. However, she continued, “all of a sudden, they said we can’t take breaks anymore.” Pellas said they were told to “go to the bathroom like before and after your shifts.” However, around March, Pellas said leadership told them they are officially allowed to go on a 15-minute break, depending on the hours the CAs worked. 

“Things never do get better, because nobody knows to bring it up,” IA said. “Because nobody knows that it’s an issue. Typically, people know that things are wrong. They just don’t have the vocabulary, or they don’t have, you know, that understanding to make sense of why things that they experience are wrong.”

Brouillard-Bruce clarified there weren’t any official changes to the break policy since the waiver form is “an HR approved policy” and “part of the hiring/onboarding packet for staff.” However, changes Pellas revealed are consistent with IA’s claims about Student Employment and HR saying they had talked with Student Housing leadership to address the issue.

Brouillard-Bruce said in his talks with both offices that “some staff may not see that it is stated as voluntary and feel like they have to fill it out.” Subsequently, “We are changing that process moving forward to have it as a supplemental sheet so it is more explicitly defined as voluntary,” he said. 

Another concern IA alleged is the apparent doctoring of student employees’ timesheets, in order to avoid overtime pay. According to USF, when classes are in session, domestic students are only allowed a maximum of 25 work hours per week and 7.5 hours per day. 

IA recounted working 14 hours in a single day, when an issue of building access for students with the One Card Office arose a day before the scheduled move-in date. 

“I was going to claim those hours as, you know, overtime. Unfortunately, my supervisor said, ‘Oh, just spread out those hours throughout the week. You know, just on days that you didn’t work. We don’t want to get dinged by student employment.’”

IA said that they did not bring this situation up to HR initially, because at the time it occurred, they were a new employee, and did not want to jeopardize their source of income. That is, until they realized “that it was a much larger problem.” 

The Foghorn was not able to confirm with past and current student employees if their timesheets had been doctored. Brouillard-Bruce did not admit to changing time cards himself and did not confirm whether other employees had in the past.

However, when asked, Brouillard-Bruce said managing hours is “challenging” since student employees often have more than one position on campus, and “OT [overtime] laws aren’t tied to one position but their work in general.” He clarified that within their budget, overtime is not allocated for, “So if staff does work overtime then it has a drastic impact on the budget,” he said

IA explained one of their job responsibilities is to approve the timesheets. “If there’s ever someone who worked overtime, you were expected to go through and edit it ourselves,” IA said, clarifying that they would have to go through a process of alerting higher-up Student Housing leadership, who would then send the timesheet back to the student to “fix.”

Whoever worked past their hours, the student employee is told to discount their overtime and resubmit their timesheet. IA continued to allege a culture of students changing the hours they worked on their timesheets themselves due to fear of “getting in trouble,” even if they had worked past the maximum hours. “And I witnessed it happen,” IA said, “It gets to the point where they don’t even need to be told sometimes that they need to change their timesheet; they will know to do it themselves. And that’s the culture here.”

In Case of An Emergency 

From a Resident Assistant’s (RA) perspective, such as senior environmental studies major Jazz Toyama, their main concern is the well-being of the residents who live on their floor. Toyama, an RA for Loyola Village, expressed worry about the lack of training provided to RAs around what they are to do in the case of a fire. According to Toyama, RA’s are not required to participate in any sort of emergency preparedness training, like fire drills, unless they are on duty and in the halls at the time the drills are being conducted.

“We weren’t even told where to evacuate our residents until we did the first fire drill,” Toyama said. “My residents were asking me where to go, and I didn’t know. We don’t practice. If the fire drill is during the day and we’re not at school, then it’s like, whatever. We don’t do it.”

The apparent lack of comprehensive emergency preparedness and communication in the event of emergencies for CAs is a common concern, especially considering USF being an open campus, and the recent incident regarding a message sent out to the campus community about the possibility of a gun on campus on the evening of March 21. As reported by the Foghorn, the object was not a real gun, and no one was harmed or arrested. However, student employees working in the resident halls reported feeling afraid and uncertain of what to do when the situation was still being investigated.

In a March interview with the Foghorn, Lone Mountain East CA Lauren White said in gun-related cases, the procedure is to notify Public Safety or press the emergency panic button, “but in that state, there is not really much else the CA could do,” she said. “You’re just told to try and resolve the situation, keeping it as calm as possible before they arrive.” 

According to Brouillard-Bruce, CAs go through training at the start of both the fall and spring semesters. The training includes response protocols for situations such as fire, earthquake, shelter in place, or shooting. “All of our instruction to staff is that their main role is the care for their own self and to notify public safety of a situation (if possible),” Brouillard-Bruce said. 

However, some CAs reported experiences that complicate Brouillard-Bruce’s claim. 

Priana Aquino, a senior political science major, was a CA for Gilson Hall during the 2019-2020 academic year. Aquino was one of the CAs on duty the evening of Nov. 24, 2019, when there was a student allegedly threatening to cause harm on campus. 

Aquino arrived for a 4 p.m. shift when the CAs on duty asked if she had seen an Instagram post circulating made by a Gilson resident insinuating he had a weapon and was planning on using it. Unsure if and when the resident would return to the dorm, Aquino and her fellow CA on duty attempted to call Public Safety but received no response. “We found out later at the town hall that had happened the day after, that Public Safety did not know where to go because everyone in every building was pressing their panic buttons,” recalled Aquino. 

The resident eventually returned to Gillson, but Aquino and her coworker didn’t know if he still had card access to the building. “He was banging on the door yelling really terrible things that I will not repeat,” said Aquino. The Student Housing staff at the desk, which included some Gilson RAs, hid in the back office before Public Safety and SFPD apprehended him. It was confirmed that the resident did not have a weapon. 

Shaken by the experience, Aquino took refuge in an RA’s room but was told to return to the front desk half an hour later. “I think now, I would have said, no, but at the time, I felt like it was my responsibility to go back down there, even though I didn’t feel safe, obviously.”

Scheduled for a shift the following day, Aquino was told by her boss that she didn’t need to come if she felt uncomfortable, but she decided she should go. Just as her shift was ending at midnight, Aquino received a call that the resident had been released from custody. Though Aquino was told the student would not be returning to campus, she feared for the safety of the next CA who would have to sit at the desk. After the call, Aquino reached out to Public Safety for support but was told they wouldn’t be there for an hour.

“At the end of the day students, especially, should not be the ones having to be your first responders in any sort of circumstance with something as huge as that.”

Aquino is now a resident of Loyola Village and was on main campus when the message about the previously mentioned potential of a gun on campus was reported on March 21. Aquino couldn’t help but think of the CA on duty when this threat occured. 

According to IA, the CA on duty at the time was told to secure all packages to ensure no residents’ mail was stolen before shutting down the desk. Once the situation had been evaluated, the CA was told “you can come out, you’re not going to die today,” alleged the anonymous source. The Foghorn could not confirm this allegation with the Student Housing Department.  

“I felt for them because I think a lot of things are going to change with that specific position, mostly just because of the nature of the city that we live in,” said Aquino. Though Aquino says Public Safety remains the campus’ only protection, her experience with them was not reliable,  “which means that students are kind of left in the dust when actual situations do happen,” said Aquino.

COVID-19 Response

The return to in-person instruction was especially difficult for the Student Housing Department’s employees. CAs and RAs have felt the brunt of these responsibilities while being a point of contact for students and expressed concern about the current guidelines’ effectiveness and enforcement. 

According to Brouillard-Bruce, the Student Housing Department on campus has regulations in place to keep dorms safe, including “face-covering requirements” and “guest limitations.” He said that leadership takes those protocols seriously, but they also “need students to take it seriously and help by both actively following policy as well as informing hall/department leadership if there are those who are in violation.” 

However, IA’s account detailed the alleged lack of preparedness by the Student Housing Department during the spring return, when the omicron variant was surging. According to IA, this manifested in multiple students not checking in and proving a negative test result upon move-in — according to a spreadsheet created by IA, which they sent to the Student Housing Department,  but was dismissed as they “can’t catch everything,” — as well as people being allowed into the dorm buildings without following proper protocol. 

Additionally, it was left to CAs to manually update the system for students checking-in who did have proof of a negative test result but whose results were not updated by HPS. IA alleged that the Student Housing Department was “running out of so many COVID tests that we would just tell people to sit tight. So many students just didn’t know or didn’t check their email to know that it was required.”

Brouillard-Bruce also had to go around the city “at every CVS and every Walgreens” to buy enough rapid tests to provide to students. “They weren’t prepared at all,” IA said. 

Many students living in the residence halls now apparently do not follow COVID-19 regulations. Toyama said it added to the RA’s responsibility to continue explaining to their residents they needed to fill out the daily health check. “I guess it kind of falls on us to make sure that our residents report if they are COVID-positive. But at the end of the day, we can’t force anyone to fill it out, especially if they know they’d have to quarantine and don’t want to deal with that. We can only do so much, you know?” 

Brouillard-Bruce said that “Student Housing and HPS [Health Promotion Services] kept a running list of students who had not provided documentation of a negative test” during move in because of the halls’ front desks being closed, and that “Students who were not checked prior to entry received follow up and were brought into alignment with the policy.” 

“They’ve been telling me that I have to fill it [the Dons Health Check] out to get into buildings, and sometimes I don’t fill it out. And I can still get into every building,” Toyama said. “A lot of people on my floor say it’s the same thing. So it’s kind of difficult to know exactly how cautious the University is. I mean, I recently found out that my roommate was not fully vaccinated, for the whole year.”

“Managing during a pandemic is never easy,” said Brouillard-Bruce. “The protocols we had in place to start the semester were firm. To think we could have completely kept COVID from coming back to campus after the break would be erroneous. We set up measures to do our best to mitigate the impact of COVID for the return to the semester.”

Housing Responsibility 

Brouillard-Bruce said their department takes any accusation of wrongdoing seriously and enacts proper changes in order to respond to them. Given the allegations, his leadership has also come into question. This is Brouillard-Bruce’s fifth year leading the Student Housing Department. He said he is aware criticism is part of the job but acknowledged, “I am not perfect, nor will I ever be. I do work hard to listen but also have to make some hard decisions that not everyone will agree with.” 

For student employees like Pellas and Toyama, they say aside from the lingering issues, the positive side of working for the Student Housing Department is meeting and talking to the various students that come by them. Currently, there are about 2600 students who live in residential halls at USF. 

Still, issues at the Student Housing Department that have become normalized are part of a larger problem, according to IA and Miller. Looking back at their time at USF, IA said that many of the challenges, such as the COVID-19 response, speak to the University’s shortage of attention and preparation, and ultimately lack of resources and insufficient funding. 

“In reality, a lot of people who make these decisions that are still there, necessarily care more about the money and the image of the university than considering the treatment of students,” Miller said.

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