Julia Nagel / Sun Staff Photographer

North Star Dining Hall, located in the Appel Commons, on Feb. 8, 2021.

February 16, 2021

Student Employees Report Pandemic Obstacles

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Balancing school and work can prove to be a daunting task for Cornell’s student employees — especially with the addition of virus safety concerns. 

From research labs to popular school stores, students work in a variety of locations across campus, each site requiring Cornellians to find different ways to balance having a job on campus during a pandemic with classes, clubs and their personal well-being.  

Kataryna Restrepo ’21 works 30 hours a week at two campus jobs — 20 hours as a student supervisor at the Becker House Dining Room and 10 hours a week at the Architecture, Art and Planning Supply Store. Restrepo had work-study funding for her first three years, but lost it this year. She said she doesn’t know why this happened.

“I wasn’t granted work-study for my last year, and it seemed like other seniors also had similar experiences,” Restrepo said. According to Restrepo, finding a job on campus this year has been more of a challenge due to pandemic limitations, so she was glad to be able to keep her jobs from last year.

Colleen Wright, deputy director of operations for the financial aid and student employment, said in an email that students trying to find work can consult resources the University provides, including the Student Employment Job Database. Students can also contact the financial aid office if they want to replace their work expectation for the academic year with a student loan, according to Wright.

Restrepo said time management has been important as she juggles her academics as an Industrial and Labor Relations major along with her campus jobs. She begins her days early to get a head start on homework and studies after the conclusion of her night shifts. 

The burden of balancing long work hours and COVID-19 risk with school work has disproportionately fallen on low-income students, according to Restrepo.

“I’ve noticed that the majority of my peers, my co-workers, student workers who are working with me are coming from low-income, first-generation backgrounds,” Restrepo said, adding that she thinks this may be because dining jobs are less desirable during the pandemic.

As a dining worker, Restrepo is now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. However, finding an appointment nearby has posed a significant challenge. She was able to make an appointment for March 27 in Potsdam, New York — more than a month away and over 150 miles from Ithaca. 

But in the meantime, she and her co-workers at Becker must rely on masks and social distancing to keep themselves and other students safe from the virus.

“After how well last semester went, workers feel a little more safe working,” Restrepo said. “We are being tested. I think it is more of a concern of how overworked we are, because a lot of what was happening in the dining hall pre-pandemic is double the work now.” 

Madeline Yeh ’24 works at the North Campus Service Center, in addition to writing for Creme de Cornell and serving as a member of the CUAir Project team. Like Restrepo, Yeh is navigating the risks and benefits of in-person work in the time of COVID-19.

Yeh said she spends eight hours a week processing mail and helping students find resources to deal with building issues such as lost keys. She said she feels that the COVID-19 safety protocols are enough to keep her safe on the job, although the smaller number of people allowed to work per shift has sometimes made her work responsibilities more challenging.

“We have to follow the capacity guidelines, which has definitely been tough,” Yeh said. “There is so much to do every day and with less people, that is more difficult, but we’ve had to adjust.”

For Restrepo, Cornell Dining’s expanded menu options has made dining hall workers busier, as additional students returned to campus this semester. Restrepo said she feels her peers often do not appreciate dining workers enough.

“There’s no recognition that workers, United Auto Workers and student workers, are working right now without any hazard pay,” Restrepo said. “There’s not an appreciation of the labor that they’re doing.”