Submitted by Shawna Merrill
Willamette University’s Residence Life and Housing (RLH) Department is founded on two basic tenets: 1. The forced restriction of underpaid students and 2. The inequity of the university’s housing costs. The result? Overworked, under-appreciated staff who become stripped of their status as students.
But, perhaps “staff” isn't the right word. RAs are not described as employees; rather, they are called “Student Leaders”, and their payment is referred to not as a paycheck but a “Stipend”. As a result, RAs do not have any employee benefits. The privileges allowed to employees, such as the right to unionize, the support of Human Resources offices, and the disallowance of employer discrimination are not afforded to RAs. Furthermore, Willamette’s RLH administrators retain the right to legally fire at will.
RAs are paid a stipend applied to their student account at the beginning of each semester. This stipend covers the RA’s room and meal plan. The total amount given to RAs in the Fall semester of 2021 was $6,785 (note: this number does shift slightly based on where an RA is located, but is the general baseline pay for RAs at Willamette). The role is described as requiring a minimum of 20 hours per week to complete tasks, attend meetings, etc. Doing the math, this equates to $10.75 per hour of work, which is below the Oregon State minimum wage. However, the reality of being an RA is such that, while in the position, it is impossible to not be an RA. A common saying during training is “You are always an RA, 24/7”. You have a resident knock on your door at 2 am? You better be ready to help them in whatever way possible. As such, the true amount made per hour becomes roughly $1.19.
In addition to the low pay and lack of benefits, RAs are much more restricted than the average student. Training and conversations with superiors indicate that RAs may not speak negatively of anyone if there is any possibility someone could overhear it. How does this manifest? RAs become unable to speak in any capacity against their peers, colleagues, or superiors. The private dorm becomes a public space, a place where someone could overhear a conversation out of context. The RLH Department stresses, above all else, the perception and image of housing. It must look like you can trust the RLH department. This conversation becomes illusionistic: RAs have to look good so that RLH will look good. And yet, despite this insistence upon forced kindness, the RLH department has no qualms with removing all support from their staff when they are of no service anymore.
The position is a labor of love, and should not (and typically isn’t) be taken up exclusively for the paid benefits. However, because of the inherent inequity of Housing and Willamette University at large, it is impossible to separate these numbers from the treatment of RAs. The people who are most disadvantaged by Housing are those who fall in the lower class, who cannot afford to pay for housing on campus. These RAs are left most vulnerable to attacks on their rights as both students and human beings. Someone who wants the position of being an RA, but does not necessarily need it to survive and attend Willamette, has the ability to resign from the position should they feel overworked. RAs who do need the job, however, are forced to put up with continually worsening conditions, with their only alternative option being to simply not have a home.
Furthermore, the latter group of RAs often work at least one other on-campus job, with multiple current RAs working 2 or more other paid positions to maintain the remaining costs outside of their room and board. The hypocrisy of Housing at Willamette then rears its head, as Area Coordinators (ACs) who work above RAs demand the same amount of work and energy put into the position from all who participate in it. They tout the necessity of equity, especially in the context of the RA position, but refuse to meet those under their charge where they are at. There is little to no recognition of this inherent disadvantage that lower class and impoverished RAs face while in the position.
Unfortunately, this issue is not isolated to Willamette University. Across the country, people who work as RAs frequently have little to no listed rights. However, instead of following this norm, this is an opportunity for Willamette University to become better than our counterparts. RAs are an essential part of our community. The work they do ensures the safety of their peers. It is entirely outrageous that they are not given a greater level of humanity and respect from an administrative level. Fight for your RAs; they cannot fight for themselves.