Letter: UMass threatens to evict RAs and PMs in the midst of a pandemic

UMass had broken its contract with student workers

By Letter Contributors

COVID-19 is ravaging our nation. Cases have surged by more than 500,000 this past week, averaging 70,000 new cases per day, while 214,000 COVID-19 cases have been connected to college reopenings. More than 220,000 have died, the economic fallout has pushed 8 million into poverty and an indifferent Congress has offered no further relief. Rates of anxiety and depression are spiking, especially among young adults. And the University of Massachusetts’ response, aside from making unnecessary cuts as Massachusetts rate, is to evict the Resident Assistants and Peer Mentors who were wrongfully laid off in the fall semester.

At the end of the summer, when the University wrongfully laid off the vast majority of RAs and PMs, our union won free housing for all laid off staff. We are currently going to arbitration to hold the University accountable for these wrongful layoffs; however, our present goal has been to secure housing for all RAs and PMs, many of whom take this job because they rely on campus housing. As we have begun bargaining with the university over the spring reopening plan, the housing of laid off RAs and PMs hangs in the balance, and the university has refused to commit to providing housing for laid off staff in the spring semester. In fact, the university currently has provided no responses to our proposal for employment and housing for all.

Thus, in the middle of a raging pandemic, economic crisis and mental health calamity, the University is effectively threatening vulnerable students with eviction. RAs and PMs fought tooth and nail to demand that UMass safely reopen. As COVID-19 surged throughout other universities, COVID-19 remained relatively contained on the UMass campus, thanks to proper ventilation, personal protective equipment and twice weekly testing. Off-campus outbreaks have occurred, but strict testing protocols have largely kept on-campus students safe.

Over the summer, UMass’ initial reopening plan did not include adequate ventilation, PPE or twice weekly testing; as a result, RAs and PMs vocally criticized this dangerous plan. We are proud to have demanded that UMass prioritize safety above all, and to see that COVID-19 has largely been kept at bay thanks to the safety measures of this Fall.

Yet, UMass has dedicated itself to violating our contract and disrespecting its essential workers as well. Article 22 of our contract clearly states that RAs and PMs cannot be laid off; however, UMass claims that since we had not signed our final employment paperwork, our contract does not apply. UMass knowingly withheld this contract from employees so that they could fire us at will. Does that seem worthy of the ideals of dignity and respect that university leaders claim to value?

And now, as the pandemic worsens and economic hardship continues, UMass has not yet agreed to provide employment, or at least housing, to the RAs and PMs who are relying on campus housing in the spring. Furthermore, RAs and PMs are a disproportionately Black and brown workforce; it is no accident that UMass’ disregard for student workers harms Black and brown students more than anyone else.

UMass, we present another choice: honor our contract and rehire all RAs and PMs to properly support students for the Spring 2021 semester. We also urge you to reallocate resources from policing towards community care, as the Racial Justice Coalition has been advocating for.

UMass has a chance to be the model of a pro-worker, anti-racist campus. The UMass community must fight back against evictions and layoffs that only exacerbate the hardships of this pandemic.

Marco Maldonado and James Cordero

Chairs of the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union