Let UMass students work

The administration is optimistic when it’s profitable while letting students suffer the consequences

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Nina Walat / Daily Collegian

By Maxwell Zeff, Assistant Op-Ed Editor

On Feb. 7, the University of Massachusetts emailed the student body that they would have to self-sequester for two weeks. The University asked that students working off-campus jobs consult with their employer “to see if their job functions can be performed remotely during this period.”

It feels painfully, almost intentionally, ignorant of the University to ask working students this, considering most college students work as cashiers, waiting tables or elsewhere in the service industry. You can’t ring up someone’s groceries over Zoom, so for most UMass students with jobs, these restrictions mean two weeks with no income. One week after UMass brought 5,000 students back to live on campus, the University has no right to put students or local businesses in this difficult position.

Sam Napolitano, a junior chemistry major at UMass and a cashier at the Whole Foods in Hadley, relies on her off-campus job as her “sole income, for rent, bills and everything.”

“Student employees are getting punished for the actions of others,” Napolitano said. “Just the idea of my university contacting my place of work and putting people’s jobs in jeopardy — I don’t even have words for how furious it makes me.” Napolitano’s manager assured her that she could continue working despite UMass’s restrictions. However, returning to work and breaking her self-sequester during this time could mean suspension or other disciplinary action from UMass.

Napolitano’s roommate Jacob Clark, a junior natural resource conservation major who works at The Hangar Pub and Grille, said he barely has enough money to make it through this period without an income. “I don’t think it’s appropriate from my university to reach out to my employer like this,” Clark said. “I feel like they’re completely separate. Whether UMass says so or not, I still gotta pay rent, for car repairs, food, utilities and all the other stuff.”

I reject the excuse that these measures are justifiable because we are in “unprecedented” times. Why do students, like Clark and Napolitano, not deserve an income, while the University collects the room and board fees of the over 5,000 students who came back to campus two weeks ago? The University acts optimistic when it’s profitable for them, and then lets students shoulder the consequences of our current reality. The University has shifted blame and responsibility for this surge in cases on to students, and when UMass students suffer, so does Amherst.

The University notified local businesses of these restrictions through the Amherst Business Improvement District. Executive Director of Amherst BID Gabrielle Gould said Amherst’s business district had been doing well recently, but by Monday afternoon, “It felt like a baseball bat had sent us backwards again. We do not take this lightly.” Gould emphasized how closely the local economy’s success is tied to students. Most businesses in Amherst have been limping along at 20 to 40 percent of their normal traffic these days, according to Gould.

“We feel that the University is doing their best in an imperfect situation. But telling students they can’t go to work, and thinking they can feed themselves, pay their tuition and have gas money is not okay,” she said.

Gould credited UMass for taking action out of concern for the health and safety of the community.

“Unfortunately, the businesses are suffering because of that, as are the mental and emotional stability of the students,” she said.

UMass has offered a grant of “up to $300” for students unable to work for this two week period, which seems like the final slap in the face to students with off-campus jobs. For the University to restrict a student’s ability to work for two weeks, and then offer them less than minimum wage at a part time job is outright disrespectful.

I don’t mean to criticize UMass for trying to contain a surge in coronavirus cases. I agree that serious action needs to be taken to control our current spike. However, this one restriction goes too far, and in the wrong direction. The main cause of this surge in cases is students gathering off campus, unmasked, with no social distance and no regard for their impact on the community. Students living paycheck to paycheck, working to put themselves through college have been falsely vilified; they are not the enemy here.

It seems the University is grasping at straws trying to control the virus and make the student body take this seriously. In the process of doing so, they have infringed on student’s right to work and put working college students on a blacklist.

Restrictions like these may go away after two weeks, but the impact on the administration’s relationship with students and the town will last much longer. The UMass administration’s nonsensical restrictions are chipping away at the trust they’ve built with the student body. I understand that the University is in financial turmoil and they’re trying to bring students back in a safe way, but at what cost? The administration needs to repeal this restriction on student’s working off campus jobs immediately. Working college students should not have to suffer for the University’s irresponsibility.

Maxwell Zeff can be reached at [email protected]