Students’ lives have rapidly changed with the COVID-19 virus closing campus doors. On March 13 David Farrar, McMaster’s president, announced that all graduate and undergraduate classes were cancelled and no in-person exams would take place this April. The days following this announcement have brought updates including the closure of all non-essential services on campus.
Many students found that not only were their studies interrupted, but so were their on-campus jobs.
The McMaster Students Union employs students in more than 30 departments with over 300 paid part-time jobs. The university employs students across departments including Athletics and Recreation and Housing and Conference Services. Now, many student roles have been transitioned to remote work or let go entirely.
Two students whose on-campus workplaces closed share their perspectives.
Toni Asuncion, a fourth year PNB student, has worked at the MSU’s 1280 and the Grind for the past two years. Now she is graduating and ending her time at McMaster without being able to say goodbye.
“I am really sad that I didn't get to say bye to my co-workers because it was so sudden [. . .] I've been working with some of them for two years now, and a lot of them are like family,” said Asuncion.
The MSU had to close its food vendors along with other services on campus. Currently, Centro is the only food service open on campus, which is open for students and staff who are unable to move off campus or work from home.
Aside from being unable to say goodbye to her coworkers, Asuncion says that it’s a difficult time for students who are graduating as well. Soon to be graduates have had to forego or postpone important events in their university experience, like convocation or end of year festivities, many of which come at a price. Graduation photos, grad school applications, and other expenses make up a costly part of the fourth year experience, so the outbreak makes the circumstances for this year’s cohort more dire. As the expenses of graduating have piled up, the post-graduate job market is also facing the impacts of COVID-19.
Asuncion describes a “sense of uncertainty” that she and her peers are graduating into. Unable to rely on part-time employment, she and her peers are looking for summer employment opportunities, despite concerns over the uncertainty of the job market.
On April 8, the Government of Canada released a press release detailing changes to the Canada Summer Jobs program, allowing for some clarity during this precarious time. The modifications to the program are intended to create up to 70,000 jobs for youth between 15 and 30 years of age. Job placements could begin as early as May 11, 2020, and end as late as February 28, 2021.
Asuncion says that her managers have been supportive, even helping student staff navigate the application process for Employment Insurance.
Amber*, another student who works two jobs on campus, remembered the worry and confusion that she felt as McMaster made plans to close down. While at work, she heard whispers that her job might be affected.
“You're doing your job [and] at the same time [. . .] you're hearing all the talk about [the closures] going around. And it kind of puts you into a really panicked situation because you really don't know. It's very uncertain if this is your last shift. It is not your last shift? Are you really going to cope financially?” said Amber.
She soon heard that both of her employers would be closed for the foreseeable future and neither job was able to transition online. It was hard for her to hear that her service jobs, which she took pride in, were deemed “unessential”.
“When you don't make that cut, I guess you just kind of feel disposable,” said Amber.
While on shift in mid March, Amber asked her managers about the situation but even they were uncertain. The updates coming from the top of the university left student employees unsure whether they would have jobs the following day.
“But during this shift, we're hearing that all casual staff are really non-essential staff. And because we're a part-time student [staff] and not part of the union, our jobs would be terminated after our last shift that day,” said Amber.
As a casual staff member, Amber’s job isn’t covered by a union. Unlike academic workers, many student jobs do not have the security of a collective bargaining agency. It is up to the manager to decide whether or not to rehire student staff members that were laid off during the crisis in the fall, but Amber is hopeful that she will be able to go back to her jobs in September.
Even with hopes to return to their jobs in September, students still have to contend with tighter pursestrings for the time being. No one knows how long the closures will last, which is hard for students who are financially independent or have others to support.
Although individual managers have helped student staff navigate the unprecedented circumstances, the crisis shows the structural failings of casual labour at McMaster. Student staff are among the most vulnerable employees on campus, and yet their jobs remain precarious.
After our interview, student staff found out that their pay would continue uninterrupted until April 5 for jobs where there is no longer any work available. From April 5 onward, only essential employees and those working from home would be paid.
While Amber understands that tough decisions had to be made by university administrators, she also says that there weren’t sufficient measures in place to help staff cope.
“I think there needs to be a little bit more security for students on their jobs,” said Amber.
Without a safety net, students now have to figure out how to make ends meet during a global crisis, while also finishing classes. Graduating students have to contend with extra costs and the disappointment of a final year unfinished. Low income students, students with children or dependents and students in precarious housing, or who are otherwise vulnerable, have the additional burden of finishing a school year without financial stability.
As the virus progresses and McMaster remains shuttered, only time will tell what the future holds for on-campus employment.