COVID-19 hits student workers hard: ‘’It took away my only source of income”


Outside of APM at night.
Ricky Zhao / The Triton

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Just ten weeks ago, the UC San Diego bookstore was bustling with activity. The store was filled with students grabbing scantrons, picking up extra pencils, and buying that Hydro Flask they had been eyeing all quarter. 

For Virgil, a student working in the Bookstore’s marketing department, it was business as usual. Even as the number of cases of COVID-19 began to grow in California, the store’s management instructed student employees to ‘come in to work, unless you’re sick or really uncomfortable.’

The first sign of changes to come was when the Bookstore shut down for spring break. Despite this closure, Virgil has continued to work on campus. But when Virgil returned to campus, even with the guarantee of work, he still had a problem: a significantly reduced work schedule. 

“We are now capped at working 12 hours a week instead of the usual 18-19,” he said. 

Student employees are the undercurrent of the University’s workforce, and a sizable portion of personnel. They’re present in almost every department and work space on campus. But like Virgil, many of these workers are struggling to maintain some semblance of normalcy during this public health emergency. Many students need their on-campus job to cover their costs of living, yet UCSD has cut hours and pushed them to max out their administrative leave, or in some cases let them go entirely.

According to the UCSD Career Center, student employees are classified as “non-exempt” employees, meaning that as hourly workers, their administrative leave can be calculated from their total worked hours per week. According to guidance released from the University of California Office of the President (UCOP), the maximum paid administrative leave that can be taken is 128 hours. 

However, these accrued hours are often not enough to cover basic living expenses in San Diego. This leaves many student workers, who rely on their wages to help pay rent, utilities, and other bills, in a financially dangerous situation. 

According to Forbes, many college students were not eligible to receive stimulus checks either, if their parents claimed them as a dependent on their 2018-2019 taxes. The CARES Act allocated UCSD $34.8 million in aid, with 17.4 million allocated towards emergency grants for students; however this emergency funding has since run out, according to ASUCSD President Kimberly Giangtran in a BOLD campaign video. 

A few departments, such as Transportation Services, are offering telework opportunities for their student staff for up to 15 hours a week. For some students, this is a sharp reduction in available hours that they may normally pick up in a regular quarter. Other departments are still operating in person, but with limited staff on call and increased safety measures, such as requiring gloves and masks.

At the Bookstore, “there’s a sense of paranoia now going into work,” Virgil said. “Going from social distancing or isolation to being around lots of coworkers is a bit scary.” 

For neuroscience research assistant Emma Thomsen, work was initially at a standstill with little to no direction from higher-up administrators. Despite the move to telework for many employers, Thomsen’s research work needs to be HIPAA compliant, making it near impossible to work from the safety of her home. 

Thomsen said, like most students who don’t work full time for the University, she is only eligible for 35 hours of leave. This amounts to around two weeks of income, and it has already been eleven weeks since she was told not to come to work. 

“I have no idea what next year is going to look like, so I’m hesitant to make housing plans,” Thomsen said. “It’s just a lot of uncertainty for me.”

Since the stay-at-home orders were announced, more than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment⁠—including UCSD students. 

Due to the decrease in on-campus activities, some student workers are facing the reality of no work at all. Thomsen has since filed for unemployment. 

A student worker at Housing Dining Hospitality (HDH) was laid off from their job at Marshall College’s Oceanview Terrace (OVT) dining hall. According to the student, their supervisor told them: “Since students were given the option to opt out of housing contracts, the need to serve meals drastically dropped by 70-80 percent.” 

“[I] really enjoyed my job. I was a student lead, so I would train people and have human interaction pretty much daily,” the worker said. 

“Financially, it took away my only source of income while being at school.”

Orianna Borrelli is the Administrative Director and former News Editor of The Triton. You can follow her on Twitter @orianna_b. Patrick Alexander, former Opinion Editor, contributed to the writing of the article.

Disclaimer: Orianna Borrelli is an employee of Transportation Services.