Students working off-campus jobs grapple with UMass’ self-sequester directive

“If this happens again, then I’m basically screwed”

By McKenna Premus and Leigh Appelstein

“It’s not worth risking that couple [hundred dollars] you’ll lose versus getting kicked out of school or getting kicked off campus,” said Rebekah Panaro, a UMass student who works at Whole Foods in Hadley. “Because some of us don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Panaro is one of many students facing a difficult decision to either continue working their off-campus jobs  — risking the possibility of facing disciplinary action — or adhere to the University of Massachusetts’ self-sequester guidelines.

“I, for example, can’t go home because my mom is immunocompromised,” said Panaro, who lives on campus during the school year. “But if I was going home right now, I wouldn’t have anywhere else to go. We’re all really worried… we really can’t risk this.”

Students working off-campus jobs are still expected to self-sequester following the University’s announcement on Feb. 7, which increased the campus COVID-19 risk level from “Elevated” to “High.”

The University announced a self-sequester directive following a significant increase in COVID-19 cases, which schools officials linked to student socialization in both small and large groups. All classes shifted to an entirely remote format, and students on and off campus in the Amherst area were advised to self-sequester for at least two weeks.

Students working in the Amherst area — defined as Amherst, Belchertown, Sunderland, Hadley, Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham — were encouraged to reach out to their employers to see if remote work is available.

“To be clear, however, students employed off campus are expected to follow the self-sequester directive to aid in reducing the spread of the virus,” said Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life, in and email to the campus community Tuesday night.

The University will set up the Student Employment Assistance Grant Program to provide financial support to students who are “unable to work,” awarding up to $300 per student, according to the email. The application form will be made available to students on the bursar’s website from Feb. 12 to Feb. 19.

Adam Lechowicz, secretary of technology for the UMass Student Government Association, is concerned about the amount of funding available for the grant program. The program’s funding will be sourced from a microgrant, a five-year program funded by money collected from parking tickets, and the Student Care and Emergency Response Fund, funded entirely by donations, Lechowicz said.

“The microgrant actually ran out over the summer, right after the campus went online,” Lechowicz said. “Everyone got sent home, people were applying for microgrants and that fund actually ran out. So, we believe, as the SGA, that basically there’s just not that much money in that fund.”

The SGA and Graduate Student Senate echoed Lechowicz’s sentiments in a statement issued Wednesday night, accusing the University of providing a grant program with insufficient funds to address students facing financial insecurity.

“The UMass grant program does not have sufficient funds to support every student impacted,” the statement said. “Furthermore, the Massachusetts [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] application is not accessible enough for students to easily apply for and does not distribute financial assistance rapidly enough to those who need immediate help.”

Daily Collegian

In the statement, the SGA called UMass’ decision to not allow students to go to their jobs “extremely” concerning.

“Students should not be forced to choose between their jobs to pay for basic necessities and facing possible conduct charges, or staying at home and being at risk of housing, food, and other financial insecurities,” the statement said.

The University is reaching out to local businesses and employers, asking for their “cooperation, patience and understanding as we work to contain the recent surge of COVID-19 cases in our campus community,” according to LaBanc’s email.

University spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski explained how UMass officials reached out to businesses they have long-standing relationships with, including individual business owners and leaders of the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Improvement District.

The emphasis of UMass reaching out to these businesses, he said, is that UMass values their partnership and that these restrictions put in place are for the “immediate health and welfare of the whole community as well as campus.”

“When we talked about reaching out to people, that was over the course of today [Tuesday], to let businesses know that we understand the challenges that they face, and the hardship that they will endure without student workers and to understand why this restriction is in place,” Blaguszewski said.

Some local businesses are allowing students to continue working amid the University’s public health ordinance.

Panaro, a junior natural resources conservation major, works as an in-store shopper at Whole Foods. Though Panaro wasn’t working last Monday, she said her co-workers were sent home and told they could not work. Whole Foods supervisors then informed UMass student employees on Tuesday that they could, in fact, continue working, but they would run the risk of facing disciplinary action if reported to the University. If students did decide to stop working until the self-sequestering order is lifted, they would not “get in trouble” with Whole Foods.

While Panaro understands the reasons for the University’s actions, she is concerned about how she and her co-workers will be impacted by the inability to work until the stay-in-place order is lifted.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” Panaro said. “It makes sense that they want to curve this and they want to make sure that everyone’s safe… and that we’re not infecting ourselves or our family members by traveling, or even the surrounding community because it wouldn’t be fair to them.”

Panaro believes it is “unfair” for the University to require all students to self-sequester, but she said the consensus among her co-workers is that students are mostly opting to not work during the stay-in-place order as not to risk suspension or disciplinary action.

“I think it’s unfair to the rest of us because we are essential workers,” Panaro said. “We’re not just taking stupid risks. [We] don’t go out to party or hang out with a bunch of friends and then go into work with all of these strangers that have their own lives and risks. You understand what it takes to work here and live here and to be a member of this community.

Allison Evans, a senior biomedical engineering major, said her roommate who currently works at Whole Foods in Hadley was told by store supervisors during her shift on Monday that they had become aware of the University’s self-sequester directive.

“It’s already such a stressful time, students should not have financial stress on top of that,” Evans said. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking because we’ve been super safe and we’re super pissed about the parties in general and the rise of cases, but to know that it affected her job now… she was so sad and so upset about it.”

It feels unfair that the school is almost punishing us because of what a bunch of other people did. ”

— Rebekah Panaro

While Evans currently works remotely as a Learning Resource Center tutor at UMass, she noticed how the public health measure was affecting other students and started a petition calling for the University to allow students to keep working at their off-campus jobs.

Junior chemistry major Sam Napolitano works at Whole Foods as a cashier. After receiving the University’s email to self-sequester, Napolitano received a call from her manager and had to make the decision to continue working or follow guidelines.

“I’m just in contact with my advisor asking him what to do because I live off campus, so I can’t really afford not to work. I’m also moving in a couple months and I have a service dog who needs food,” Napolitano said.

When asked about what repercussions students may face if they decide to go to work despite the self-sequestration directive, UMass officials did not specify.

“I’m not going to speculate on particulars. I mean students are governed by the Code of Student Conduct,” said Blaguszewski. “As we became aware of something, the dean would follow up and have a conversation with students to make sure that he or she understands that they need to comply and move them in that direction.”

Other businesses have barred UMass students from working until the University’s order is lifted.

Jake Clark, a junior natural resource conservation major, works at the Hangar Pub and Grill in Amherst as a delivery driver. Last Monday, he received a text message from his manager informing him that he wouldn’t be scheduled to work until Feb. 22.

“I wasn’t anticipating that I would be out of work for two weeks, and I just dropped off my car to have repairs done to it which will cost several hundred dollars, and I wasn’t ready for that,” Clark said. “If I hadn’t had enough money saved up, I wouldn’t be in a good position financially. Luckily, I just barely have enough saved up to make it through this, but hopefully something else like this doesn’t happen after the two weeks ends.

“If this happens again, then I’m basically screwed,” he said.

Clark works at the restaurant to cover the costs of his rent, groceries and repairs for his car.

“I don’t know what [the University is] thinking. In what world does a person work for two weeks and make $300?” Clark said. “I did end up signing up for the Massachusetts PUA… but they hardly ever give anything to students… I really hope they give me the money because it’s not like students are getting any of the stimulus checks or any unemployment benefits.”

In addition to the impacts on paying for rent, groceries and tuition, students are also concerned about how the new public health measure will impact the greater Amherst community.

Olivia Schumacher, a senior communications and hospitality and tourism management double major, was notified by email Wednesday that she is no longer permitted to continue her work-study internship at the Amherst Survival Center due to the University’s new guidelines. However, she will be welcomed back once UMass allows students to resume off-campus work.

With UMass students accounting for a large portion of volunteers at the Amherst Survival Center, Schumacher is concerned about the impact the self-sequester directive will have on the center’s staff, as well as the impact the increase in COVID-19 cases will have on the local community.

“I just feel so sorry for the community because if I lived here and I wasn’t a student, I would be terrified to even walk outside of my house,” Schumacher said. “Responsibility-wise, it was UMass and the students who are being so irresponsible with COVID and everything. UMass should not have let 60 percent of their students back to campus.”

Harvest Carocci, a junior pre-veterinary science major, works as a veterinary assistant at an animal clinic in South Hadley. Her job was also paused due to the self-sequester directive.

“I’m worried,” Carocci said. “I feel like they just set this rule and they didn’t really consider that students need to work. It’s honestly really frustrating because they’re just telling me that I can’t work while I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m here for my classes.”

If I lived here and I wasn’t a student, I would be terrified to even walk outside of my house.”

— Olivia Schumacher

While Carocci understands the University’s reasoning for the public health order and plans to self-sequester until the order is lifted, she is worried about how the restrictions will affect her ability to pay for expenses, such as groceries.

“I understand that we have to self-sequester because of the cases,” she said. “But at the same time, giving us barely any notice that we can’t work for two weeks, not… giving us time to file for unemployment, just seems pretty ridiculous to me. I definitely need to work… to be able to buy groceries and stuff. I know there are people living paycheck-to-paycheck who can’t take two weeks off. I feel like it was short-sighted for UMass to say that we couldn’t work.”

Carocci continued, “I’m the only vet tech assistant there. So if I’m not there, what are they going to do?”

Kamran Noori Shirazi, a senior double majoring in Chinese and biochemistry, works for the Town of Amherst through a federal work-study program called Amherst Leisure Services and Supplemental Education for a childcare program. The program takes care of children for the entire school day, from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., while their parents go to work.

However, with UMass students making up 90 percent of the program’s staff, the program will not run for two weeks.

The program also benefits the elementary school children in a number of ways: tutoring, encouraging a healthy lifestyle with exercise and following COVID-19 precautions like wearing masks, taking their temperature and washing their hands. According to Shirazi, they are doing “everything within the state’s guidelines in order to ensure that our students are safe and that the spread of COVID-19 is absolutely minimized.”

“I really can’t think of any option that these children could have because our program is one of the only programs I know of in the area that is willing to help take care of these kids throughout the day,” Shirazi said. “And in these two weeks, my greatest fear is that I’ve already seen the kind of mental toll. The mental, physical, psychological, emotional toll that [COVID-19] and separations [of] students from other students has had on these elementary school kids.”

On Thursday, Northampton Public Health Director Meredith O’Leary issued a statement advising Northampton business owners not to allow UMass students to return to work until the University lifts the self-sequester directive.

“We recognize that many of our local businesses rely on UMass students for staffing support, and the necessary quarantine of these students has a widespread impact that is felt outside of the university campus,” according to the statement which was posted on the Northampton Health Department Facebook page. “For the safety of your employees and protection of our community, please be sure that if you employ UMass students that they are not allowed to come to work until quarantine/stay in place order has been lifted.”

The SGA announced in a tweet Thursday night that on-campus student workers will be paid for their scheduled hours during the entirety of the self-sequestering period. The SGA is also encouraging students to participate in an email campaign calling on University administrators to “reverse your decision to sanction students who need to work at their off-campus employer.”

“We’re basically uniting around this idea that this is just a generally bad response from admin, and so we’re organizing this email campaign, so students can amplify their voices of personal testimony,” Lechowicz said. “We’re gonna have to band together these few weeks and get through it and work together as students.”

McKenna Premus can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @mckenna_premus. Leigh Appelstein can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @LAppelstein.