Michael Li / Sun File Photo

Two months after move-in, North Campus resident advisers say Cornell has met their initial demands for protective equipment and compensation.

October 12, 2020

Nearly 2 Months After Strike, RAs Say University Has Met Demands

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When resident advisers unpacked their bags in August, many thought Cornell wouldn’t last a semester. Decrying what they saw as low pay and a lack of personal protective equipment, more than 50 RAs skipped virtual meetings and training sessions during move-in.

But now, many RAs say they feel more comfortable than they did a month ago. Since the strike, the University has met many of their initial demands, but RAs continue to advocate for representation in decision making processes and for more compensation.

According to Ramon Reyes ’21, an RA in Mary Donlon Hall, RAs met with University administration immediately after the strike. In the following month, Cornell provided RAs more PPE and filled in some of the staffing shortages that forced them to work more shifts when the semester started.

Isabelle Aboaf ’21 said she feels more comfortable as a senior RA in Balch Hall because of these changes. Within a few days after the August strike, Aboaf said she received a bottle of hand sanitizer, face shields, three reusable masks and a box of masks to share with other RAs.

Balch also hired more RAs, helping reduce the resident-per-RA load that burdened Aboaf and her colleagues at the beginning of the year. Many RAs had quit or stayed home, leaving vacant positions.

Each semester of this academic year, Cornell is now reimbursing RAs $50 for laundry, $75 to make up for a lost gym membership and 100 meal swipes.

While behavioral compact monitors walk around campus to remind students of the rules, Aboaf said RAs are primarily responsible for COVID-19 code of conduct compliance inside the residence halls because behavioral compact monitors don’t have access to dorms.

But Reyes said he believes RAs wield limited power over enforcing the behavioral compact.

“We can get the Cornell IDs of residents who break the compact and report [the rule violation] up,” Reyes wrote in an email to The Sun. “However, if residents decide to duck us, our options become limited.”

RAs continue to take on-call shifts, answer resident questions and organize events over Zoom for their residents. Despite virtual events, Aboaf said she misses getting to know residents in-person.

“Unlike in my previous experience, it’s a lot harder to get to know residents because I just don’t really ever see my own residents themselves, or interact with them one-on-one, or even really see them much on Zoom,” Aboaf said.

As temperatures drop and residents stay inside, Aboaf said she worries about her safety for the remainder of the semester. She said she sees residents using lounges more often than they did in late summer, and that this trend might increase when Ithaca winter rolls around.

Administrators are continuing conversations with the RAs and other members of the Housing and Residential Life team, according to Pat Wynn, assistant vice president for student and campus life.

“Cornell continues to have productive conversations with the residential team, agreeing to a continued commitment to re-examine and restructure the residential advisor student leadership program,” Wynn wrote in an email to The Sun.

The University is also reviewing recommendations made by the Residential Life Task Force. Established early in 2020, the task force is made up of “residential life professionals and members of the student leadership program,” according to Wynn.

While the RAs discuss future changes to the job with administrators, they have the support of other Cornell employees, including Prof. Shimon Edelman, psychology.

“The RAs’ situation is one piece of the puzzle, but the big picture is clear: A university is just like any other workplace, and the rights of its workers (starting with their very livelihood) can only be safeguarded by the workers themselves, who should organize and bargain collectively,” Edelman wrote in an email to The Sun.

Reyes wrote that he hopes Cornell will pay RAs more fairly and make the job more accessible to students. According to Reyes, because the stipend hasn’t changed in recent years, the actual value of pay has decreased because of inflation and increased living costs. Currently, the RA stipend starts at $500 per semester, then rises to $700 after working three semesters and jumps to $900 after five.

“It incentivizes RAs who have backgrounds of means to apply, and discourages those who might rely on financial aid or the income from a steady job,” Reyes wrote.

Reyes added that he believes the newly formed RA council will make changing their compensation and job responsibilities possible.

“As far as we’re concerned, our demands have been met and we’re looking for longer-term change later down the line through this direct line of communication being established in the formation of the RA Council,” Reyes wrote.

Raphy Gendler ’21 contributed reporting.