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Monday, Feb 26, 2024

Residential Life Negotiations Reach SGA

After months of tense negotiations between residential life staff and college administrators, a bill calling for increased pay, training and support was introduced to the Student Government Association (SGA) on Sunday.

The bill, entitled “Student Residential Life Revitalization and Just Compensation Act,” proposed that residential life staff be compensated at the college’s Level B wage scale, or a minimum of $5,410 for their first year on the job. It requests that each commons administration add two live-in supervisory positions to their commons team to be filled by a recent graduate or senior, and that commons administration provide a first aid certification program for residential life staff.

The bill also states that if the college does not grant residential life staff Level B compensation for the 2018–2019 school year, the SGA would endorse a student residential life strike if one were to take place.

“There was some language in the bill that was a little disturbing too, which was the idea of this body supporting a strike of residential life staff,” said Doug Adams, director of residential life. “I hope that we’d look at this and say that’s not where our staff sits.”

Adams argued that the bill’s requests were more appropriate for discussion among the Residential Life committee, rather than through an SGA bill. However, when the bill’s sponsor, Feb senator Alec Fleischer ’20.5, was asked if he would rather take the conversation to the Residential Life committee or continue the discussion in the SGA meeting next week, he responded that he wanted it on the SGA agenda for next week.

Negotiations between residential life staff and administrators began in the fall, when student staff struggled to adapt to this year’s replacement of commons residential advisors (CRAs) with commons residence directors (CRDs), and felt they lacked sufficient training to deal with alcohol-related emergencies.

“Training as a consensus, ask anybody, bombed. Bombed so hard,” said Kyle Wright ’19.5, a Wonnacott community assistant (CA). “Doug Adams was on medical leave. FYCs and RAs were not trained how to handle the most common residential situations they encounter, which is instances of alcohol poisoning and drug misuse. Can you imagine the anxiety that creates for a 19-year-old running into someone who is passed out on the floor, who has a dropping pulse, covered in their own vomit and they have been told to just call Public Safety and do nothing?”

Wright expressed additional frustration that residential life staff believed that CRDs would function in a way similar to that of the former CRAs, only to find that the position functioned far differently in practice.

“Student residential life staff show up [in August 2017] having signed a contract, a legally binding document outlining their roles and responsibilities, understanding that CRDs will be one thing," Wright said. “Once the CRDs were hired, the job description changed rapidly. We come to find out that not only are [most] CRDs not living on campus, not only are they not recent graduates, but also that there was only going to be one on call for the entire campus.”

Wright said that last year, students could always turn to CRAs for in-dorm support, even when their CRA was not on call.

“There were five [CRAs] present 24 hours a day, six days a week in the dorms,” he said. “So you could go to your CRA even if the one on call was preoccupied. There was accessibility to [the CRA] position, there was direct supervisory support on the weekends. That support no longer exists.”

Residential life staff argue that this lack of support felt from the transition to CRDs has resulted in a large increase in responsibilities for First Year Counselors (FYCs), who now feel pressure to act as first responders and provide support and programming.

“It should be noted that that level of support from CRAs was largely unsustainable with their stress levels and obligations. However, now [the CRAs’] stress and responsibility has been laid on the FYCs,” Atwater community assistant Peter Dykeman-Bermingham ’18.5 said.

As a result of widespread feeling that FYCs have had to bear an increased burden with the transition to a system with CRDs, many staff members believe that a pay increase is now more necessary than ever. FYCs will make $2,400 this year, which breaks down to an hourly wage that is less than Vermont’s minimum of $10.50 if divided by the hours Wright says FYCs work per week. RAs currently make $1,800 per year, and CAs $2,ooo.

“Residential life has always been underpaid here,” Atwater FYC Samantha Pearl ’18 said. “A breakdown of the hourly pay in comparison to any other campus job is absurd. But the expectations have increased this year. We as student workers are now firstly and directly responsible for afterhours supervision during the week and on the weekends. It’s a different job, a bigger job, and many of us have multiple jobs on campus because of the poor pay.”

In October, residential life staff drafted a petition urging administrators to consider these challenges. As a result of the petition, administrators and students participated in conversations meant to address the complaints.

“A number of us launched into a dialogue in the fall where we got together with commons teams, administrators, other res life staff. We had a series of really big meetings where we said this is not ok, we feel unsafe, we feel as if the system is broken, and you need to address salary,” Wright explained.

After these initial larger meetings, a proposal with a draft of a new pay scale and job descriptions was sent to residential life staff sometime in late November. The draft proposed that FYCs, Resident Assistants (RAs) and CAs all be granted a rebate of $3,000 for 15 hours of work.

Pearl and other residential life staff emailed with feedback, criticizing this uniform pay for all positions in particular.

“I was initially insulted and found the idea of equal stipends trivializing to the FYC position. Doing so to me seemed to continue to devalue the tolls and responsibilities of the FYC position, particularly those aspects that can’t be calculated into weekly hours or a job description,” Pearl said.

Wright echoed Pearl’s sentiments, stressing his belief that commons administrators are out of touch with the realities of the responsibilities of staff.

“The deans and CRDs are so out of touch with the residential needs of this college that they actually thought that paying these positions the same thing, valuing them at the same level was even remotely appropriate, after six months of dialogue to the contrary,” he said.

On Jan. 8, Atwater Commons Dean Scott Barnicle sent out a finalized proposal. The final proposal sets RA and FYC pay equal at $3,150 and CA pay at $2,250. This proposal also included more similar job descriptions for RAs and FYCs.

“It is clear the new RA role and the FYC role are far more mirrored than they are currently. And so we felt strongly and I think appropriately, given the feedback we’d gotten, those roles should be paid more than the CA role,” Adams said.

Many residential life staff appreciated the proposal’s adjustments in accordance with their feedback, but believe they deserve to be paid Middlebury’s Level B compensation.

“I responded to an earlier proposal and some of my suggestions appeared in the final decision, though still shy of what I considered fair pay for the work,” Dykeman-Bermingham said. “This plan represents something like a $60K increase to wage spending and I understand the difficulty of so abruptly changing the res life accounting. However, this pay increase should be accompanied by a plan to annually increase the salary of student staff until they are paid a fair wage for the very stressful work they perform.”

“I am grateful for the pay increases, but also I agree with Kyle that we should be making minimum wage, especially now that there are expected hours listed,” Pearl said.

Fleischer stressed the reasonable nature of these requests, considering the skill required for the job.

“This is a skilled job. There is 2 weeks of training in the beginning of the year, plus its a competitive application process. At a minimum it should be a level B scale, that’s $10.82 a year for the first year. We’re asking to bring it in line with every other job at Middlebury,” Fleischer said.

After discussing the outstanding demands of residential life staff with Wright, Fleischer agreed to work with him to bring a bill outlining their requests to the SGA for deliberation and a vote.

In the SGA meeting, Doug Adams and Cook commons dean Ian Sutherland stressed the importance of awarding residential life staff a rebate, as they do currently, rather than a weekly paycheck based off of an hourly wage for a set number of hours a week, in part because the hours can vary significantly each week. Furthermore, Sutherland claimed that a weekly paycheck would actually result in lower net earnings because a substantial amount would be withheld by taxes.

“The actual money that a student would see in the academic year would be much reduced,” Sutherland said.

But a calculation from suggests otherwise. At a Level B hourly rate of $10.82, a student working 15 hours per week for 28 weeks plus 80 hours of training at the beginning of the semester would make $3,350 according to Vermont income tax rates for a single person paid weekly. This number is higher than the college’s proposed $3,150.

Wright stressed that Taylor and Adams participated extensively in conversations with students, and that if he had to pinpoint where communication fell through, it would be between CRDs, commons deans and their student staff.

“Baishakhi was very proactive, but because her job is to delegate the actual work, she delegated that work to commons deans and CRDs primarily,” he said. “To my knowledge, CRDs and deans solicited feedback over email, but did not go to many lengths to create space for their staff to provide focused, critical feedback.”

When asked whether he thought commons deans and CRDs had had sufficient communication with their student staff before drafting the proposals, Adams said yes.

“They reached out through their teams, through regular one-on-ones, to ask, ‘here’s what we’re doing, do you have any feedback?’” Adams said.

“In advertising for next year, email and posters can be inadequate, so we’ve done an information session so far, we’re planning another information session closer to the [housing application] deadline next week, saying we’d really like to answer any questions people have,” Adams said, referring to the housing information session held on Jan. 16. In later email correspondence, Adams clarified that this meeting was “targeted at new applicants for next year.”

In an email from the Undergraduate Housing office, the event was described as an opportunity to “ask questions related to the Fall Term Pre-Open Draw processes,” where questions could be answered relating to "Res Life Positions, Language & Special Interest Houses, Superblocks, Off Campus Housing, and Social Houses."

Current residential life staff were either unaware of the meeting or did not think it was an opportunity to ask questions about the ongoing negotiations. When asked if Pearl attended the housing information session on Jan. 16, she replied, “I don’t think so? I didn’t go and didn’t think it had anything to do with that.”

When asked if he had met with anyone in person about the proposal sent over winter break, about the second proposal, Dykeman-Bermingham said he had only sent an email with criticism against the equal pay for all positions.

“I am assuming that Kyle Wright had one-on-one meetings. I never met one-on-one with a dean or CRD either,” he said.

When Wright was asked whether he had had any one-on-one communication with a commons dean or CRD, he replied that he had no correspondence with either commons deans or CRDs throughout the process.

The Campus reached out to all of the commons deans and CRDs for comment. Some did not respond, while others replied that Doug Adams could answer all questions.

In response to calls for increased pay, Adams stressed the significance of the accomplishment of attaining a pay increase for the 2018–2019 school year.

“The college is going through a restructuring time where we are actually reducing budgets, but in this case we were able to negotiate going into next year an increase in the rebates that we’ll offer to student staff,” Adams said.

Adams also plans to continue to seek pay increases.

“The rebate should be larger. I’d love to see that. I think finding the balance is really important. I’m going to continue to advocate for a higher rate going forward,” he said.

In response to calls for an additional position to provide in-dorm support to residential life staff, Adams said it was a possibility, but that it will require continued conversation that would include communication with students.

“The SRA can potentially exist if it solves the problem. We’re going to continue to explore that with our student staff,” he said.

Adams has already begun efforts to provide increased first aid and alcohol training to students.

“I’ve already reached out to Jen Kazmierczak, she’s our environmental health and safety educator who helps coordinate first aid trainings about setting something up so that students and res life staff who are interested in getting CPR or first aid certified can take care of that. Alcohol training is through health and wellness, so Barbara McCall, the health and wellness educator has agreed to do that program, so she’s going to come in and do a program with them next week,” Adams said.

Editor’s note: Managing editor Will DiGravio, who is currently an FYC and participated in residential life negotiations, was not involved in the writing or editing of this report.