‘Need to know someone’s hearing me’: UC Berkeley RAs reflect on working conditions amid COVID-19 pandemic

photo of the outside of Christian Hall
Madeleine Fruman/File
Many resident assistants, or RAs, have reported feeling uncomfortable in their positions amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the extra expectations that come with it. In particular, RAs mentioned feeling unheard in conversations regarding their well-being.

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“Rolling with the punches” has been a common mode of action among UC Berkeley students as many continue to grapple with the evolving policies and procedures induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For three campus students and resident assistants, or RAs, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, this adjustment has been a bit more jarring.

Beyond daily academic responsibilities, one of the anonymous RAs — a campus junior — said they have to carry out the duties outlined in their job description. Among those tasks are performing rounds to check in on residents, retrieving locked-out residents and fostering a sense of community for students amid their transition to a life of newfound freedoms and independence.

Though not waged campus employees, RAs are alternatively compensated via free meals and housing — an appealing arrangement in a city as costly as Berkeley, the anonymous junior said.

Chief among her responsibilities, the anonymous junior said, is creating “a safe, inclusive and happy community” for residents by means of hallway engagement, policy enforcement and crisis management.

The pandemic, however, has stretched these expectations, causing many RAs to become uncomfortable in their positions.

With residents breaking safety protocols, a risk of exposure to COVID-19 and an encompassing lack of empathy, RAs have questioned the level of attention being paid to their well-being by the Residential Life, or ResLife, department, which they are part of.

The anonymous junior alleged that RAs fall under the category of “casual/restricted employees” and lack the workers’ rights provided to salaried employees.

RA responsibilities amid the pandemic

As a Unit 2 senior RA, another one of the anonymous sources, a campus senior, is tasked with leading and mentoring a team of RAs by means of problem-solving, crisis management and policy implementation.

Following shelter-in-place orders in the spring 2020 semester, the anonymous senior RA and other hall staff members were curious about campus’s plans for fall 2020 to ensure students’ safe return.

RAs were given a “COVID-19 modified” job agreement contract, wherein many of their responsibilities from their original 2020-21 job agreement contract had not changed.

These included being available to residents and responding to student behavior that is harmful to their health and safety. RAs must respond to policy violations and emergencies while on duty, as well as lend “additional support and staffing” during times of crisis.

Originally comprising 30% of their total responsibilities, in the updated contract, RAs’ “Safety & Risk Management Responsibilities” increased to 40%.

Upon the start of the 2020-21 academic year, ResLife provided the anonymous senior RA and the rest of the residence hall community a set of expectations to ensure safety in the residence halls. Some of these provisions included a “no guests allowed” policy, a mask mandate and social distancing requirements.

These measures, however, lacked sufficient enforceability on the part of the department, the anonymous senior RA said.

“It’s clear that the department had these ideal plans,” the anonymous senior RA said. “They had a lot of stuff on paper, but they didn’t work out how this would actually play out.”

With increased COVID-19 safety protocols, RAs were still expected to travel between their building hallways to complete on-duty rounds, heightening their potential exposure to the virus.

According to an anonymous second-year RA who is a campus senior, RAs were instructed not to perform rounds in buildings besides their own. However, a significant reduction in staff has at times required some to visit multiple buildings within their unit, she alleged.

Though advised to respond as remotely as possible, the anonymous junior said some tasks — such as retrieving unmasked locked-out residents — often required RAs to come in close contact with others.

“If someone were to get alcohol poisoning, or some kind of medical emergency, then we’d absolutely have to show up on-site,” the anonymous junior said. “We are doing things on site that require tons and tons and tons of exposure.”

According to the anonymous senior and anonymous junior, RAs were also not immediately informed of the locations of residents who had either contracted or been exposed to COVID-19. These residents were consequently moved to Foothill, which is currently being used as a quarantine housing facility at UC Berkeley.

The two RAs echoed that this resulted in RAs responding to areas in buildings that they later uncovered — often from residents — were the sites of a previous exposure.

“Last semester, it probably took three months before we were actually being informed that residents were being moved,” the anonymous junior said. “We’re thinking to ourselves, ‘I just did a lockout in that building, and nobody was going to tell me that they had positive cases?’ ”

A list documenting which floors housed residents who were sent to Foothill was kept by resident directors, or RDs, who supervise RAs. However, due to medical privacy, this information was kept private, the anonymous senior said.

In both the original and COVID-19 modified contracts, RAs must respond to all emergencies when directed to by their supervisors. However, the new contract adds that RAs must attend to emergencies “potentially after consultation with RD on duty for response on-site as necessary.”

As COVID-19 cases escalated, it became difficult to maintain an up-to-date understanding of all the locations that had been exposed, the anonymous senior said.

RAs eventually began communicating with one another about which areas to avoid via group messaging, according to the anonymous junior.

RAs underscore the need for more discipline 

An unclear system of discipline for residents who break COVID-19 safety protocols has caused some RAs to feel “very unsupported” by the department, the anonymous junior said. Some have found their efforts ineffective at thwarting violations — a consequence, she claimed, of ResLife’s “weak” conduct processes.

Of the incident reports the anonymous junior has submitted to ResLife upper management concerning resident infractions, the department has responded with “slap-on-the-wrist versions of conduct,” she said. These include having the resident attend a conduct meeting or write an essay.

The department has relied on “total brute force from RAs,” when it comes to disciplining residents and shielding others, the anonymous junior added.

“This semester has made being an RA feel very policey, which is never what we want to do,” the anonymous junior said. “I don’t want to be a cop in the residence halls. That’s not my job. My job is building community.”

According to campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff, students in the residence halls must abide by public health protocols such as social distancing.

He added that repeat offenses can lead to students being “denied access to all or parts of the campus” or investigated by the Center for Student Conduct.

“Our focus is education and support, not punitive action,” Ratliff said in an email.

Decisions over basic needs as RA retention rate dwindles 

In response to the increased struggles brought about by the pandemic and their modified responsibilities, some RAs have chosen to step down.

This occurred dramatically at the beginning of fall 2020, the anonymous senior said. Campus offered to place those unwilling to work on an alternate list, which notes those available to replace an RA in the event one is no longer able to perform their duties.

Job reinstatement, however, was not guaranteed, she added.

“That made a lot of returning RAs very uncomfortable,” the anonymous senior said. “We’re refusing not to come back because of COVID; why won’t you even promise me my job security when I make this decision for myself now?”

The question of which RAs were able to step down to prioritize their health — and which were not — is one of financial security and basic needs access.

Some RAs have been “scared” to speak up about their mistreatment because of how connected keeping their job is to accessing their basic needs, said ASUC President Victoria Vera.

“I do have a sense that this department does take advantage of the fact that they have a student population working for them that depends on them to meet basic, essential life needs,” the anonymous senior said. “They really push the limits of what people are willing to endure just so they can have a hot meal to eat and a roof over their head.”

The RA retention rate continued to plummet throughout the fall semester, the anonymous senior RA said.

According to her, a member of the ResLife department sent an email to supervising figures in unit mailrooms seeking additional student staff.

The email subject heading read “We Need Help! After Hour Lock Outs” and offered to pay and house those “willing to work” after hours and during the weekend.

RA workload amid increased student quarantining

Following a period of low COVID-19 rates in fall 2020, the first week back to school for the spring semester brought with it a host of parties, the anonymous junior said.

The next week, positive cases began accumulating rapidly in the residence halls.

On Feb. 1, UC Berkeley mandated a weekslong self-sequester period for all students living in residence halls.

Foothill soon reached capacity, the anonymous junior said, so residents had to quarantine in their rooms and hallways.

The number of RAs available to serve on duty significantly decreased, as many also had to quarantine, the anonymous junior said. The remaining RAs ultimately had to pick up a “ridiculous amount” of work.

Both the original and COVID-19 modified contracts state that RAs are expected to work about 19 hours per week.

According to an “Additional Duties” section of the original contract, RAs must complete any extra roles “as assigned to meet the evolving needs of the residential community.”

This stipulation remains in the updated contract, though it is joined by the requirement that RAs perform “other duties as assigned by the RD or SRD and the administrative staff of Residential Life.”

During the self-sequester period, ResLife was “committed to providing support and critical resources” to RAs, including meals, mental health resources and protective gear, Ratliff said in his email. The department also suspended community walks and secured academic accommodation letters for RAs.

“We recognize the heightened concerns due to the recent surge and trust the guidance from our public health partners to protect live-in student staff as they continue to support the transitional needs of residents within our communities,” Ratliff said in his email.

RAs request safety modifications, empathy from ResLife

At the start of the self-sequester period, RAs had not yet been offered the vaccine, the anonymous junior said. Upon uncovering that RDs already had the option, many RAs questioned why they were still being asked to serve on duty.

“(RAs) felt very skipped over, very expendable,” the anonymous junior said. “We don’t have any kind of workers’ rights, and so we do get kind of an expendable feeling every once in a while.”

In response to safety concerns, a group of senior RAs sent an email with an attached document to ResLife. The document was signed and endorsed by more than 85 hall staff members and listed potential solutions to protect RAs’ health and safety.

“This semester is certainly not beginning as we hoped, and we need to collaborate closely to effectively manage the health concerns,” said a member of the campus Division of Student Affairs in a responding email.

To hear RAs’ concerns, members of ResLife decided to attend their weekly staff meetings.

An hour before meetings began Feb. 2, RAs received an email from University Health Services informing them of their eligibility to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The anonymous junior said this discredited their arguments during the meeting, most of which concerned what was being asked of them while unvaccinated.

During the anonymous senior’s hall staff meeting, she claimed, department officials failed to invite RA engagement.

“The response from leadership and how they were reacting in that moment was so cold and callous,” the anonymous senior said. “RAs would say, ‘I’m literally just looking for some empathy right now, and I just need to know someone’s hearing me.’ ”

A group of senior RAs sent a follow-up email to ResLife requesting another meeting, as they felt disrespected.

In its follow-up email, ResLife did not address the request for another meeting and instead responded by accepting a handful of the eight total requests RAs submitted in their initial document. 

Although outlined in the COVID-19 modified contract that RAs “will be provided PPE (personal protective equipment),” one of their requests was for supplies to be “properly” restocked. According to ResLife’s email, the department was working to communicate with staff supervisors about how to restock PPE.

ResLife allowed for the temporary suspension of rounds, but RAs were still expected to physically respond to residents, the anonymous senior RA said.

As vaccines rolled out, RA disparagement quieted down, she added.

As COVID-19 cases decrease, RAs seek to be heard

While conditions have improved since the self-sequester period, the three anonymous RAs noted several areas where UC Berkeley can improve its RA treatment.

RAs’ suggestions for improvements often go unheard, the anonymous senior said, describing ResLife leadership as a “giant spaghetti web of chaos.”

To ensure RA safety and protection, the anonymous senior and anonymous senior RA echoed the sentiment that they should be included in departmental conversations when decisions impacting them are being made.

What RAs need most, the anonymous senior said, is the assurance that their well-being is considered. Rather than fear losing their job — and, by extension, their housing and meals — RAs need to know that if they choose to speak up, someone will listen.

In the instance of the February COVID-19 outbreak, RAs were not fully listened to until they asked to be, the anonymous senior RA said.

“Campus, instead of being proactive about it, was reactive,” she said.

The pandemic marked a significant change in what it means to be an RA.

Instead of fostering a community for students to begin their journeys at UC Berkeley, RAs found themselves risking their health for the sake of protecting residents.

“If there is a theme to being an RA and this department, it is that they don’t listen to us, and we have to do what they tell us,” the anonymous junior said. “The whole COVID issue is a symptom of a much larger problem, and that problem is the fact that RAs are expendable.”

Olivia Moore is a student life reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @olivia_moore18 .