Same Covid Stress, Different Benefits

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Image By Mediamodifier from Pixabay

By Lee Skallerup Bessette

It started in a Zoom call with a colleague, as a lot of things do these days. She was dealing with a particularly tricky situation regarding the holiday break. Her campus administrators had pushed the start of the spring semester later into January, boasting how they were listening to faculty members and students who asked for an extended break given the intensity of the fall semester. The catch? People in staff roles were not given any additional days off, even though the campus was to be a ghost town for more than a month.

As a supervisor, this colleague found herself in the unenviable position of having to break the bad news to her exhausted staff. They had to keep working, even though — without professors and students on the campus over the holidays and into January — there was little work to do.

After our conversation, I took to social media and asked if other campuses, in extending the winter break for professors, had offered additional time off to staff employees, too. Some reported that they had been gifted a handful of extra paid vacation days to use over the extended break, while others said they were forced to take furlough days over the holidays. Far too many shrugged and said they were expected to either take their own paid vacation days or show up to work as usual — even though staff members are just as burned out as everyone else on college campuses lately.

That is but one example of the inequity that often prevails between faculty and staff members when it comes to both the expectations of benefits and their actual distribution.

As I’ve noted in my previous columns, “staff” is a fuzzy term in academe. It can include janitorial and cafeteria workers, groundskeepers, administrative assistants, IT experts, academic advisers, student-services staffers, faculty developers, HR specialists, and more. Staff tend to be the most diverse labor sector of any college or university, both in terms of what we do and who we are.

To read the PR missives put out by administrators in 2020-21, you would think that faculty members are the only employees struggling to care for dependents during the pandemic. Campus efforts focus almost exclusively on helping them — with nothing said or done to help staff members dealing with the exact same pressures.

The same is true of other standard faculty benefits. In fact, the disparity can be staggering between the amount of support that full-time, tenured, and tenure-track faculty members receive, compared with that granted to full-time staff members. (Note: Clearly it’s a far different story for adjunct faculty members whose benefits range from limited to nonexistent — which is probably why some Ph.D.s switch from adjunct jobs to staff positions: At least a staff position brings some benefits). Consider what is typical at many institutions:

  • Full-time professors receive paid parental and family leave, while many full-time staff members do not.
  • Professors can take advantage of campus day-care centers and other child-care programs that are rarely open to staff members.
  • Faculty members have access to campus housing; staff members don’t.
  • The partners and spouses of faculty members can seek employment assistance from the institution, but it doesn’t offer the same help to the partners and spouses of staff members.
  • Faculty and staff members have different leave policies.
  • Some institutions offer different health coverage and retirement benefits to faculty versus staff members.
  • And as we’ve seen during Covid-19, staff members face more restrictions when it comes to working from home than faculty members. Some of that is because Covid-19 has prevented professors from doing their jobs in a physical classroom. Meanwhile staff members are more likely to work in offices where Covid-19 restrictions mean they are less at risk than in a classroom with 50 or 100 students. Still plenty of staff employees — especially those with family obligations and limited child-care options — could do their jobs just as easily from home in this crisis yet were expected to work on the campus.

Each of those disparities has a real human impact on staff employees who are struggling with the same issues as faculty members but are treated far differently.

When I took an informal poll on Twitter about this, the frustration in the responses was clear: These inequities send a clear message from their employer and institution that they matter less than professors, and add extra stress on staff employees who find themselves in life situations that require access to these benefits. That the institution won’t assist a large group of employees while privileging another is galling.

Various factors play a role in how much disparity there may be between faculty and staff support on any campus: the presence of unions, the institution’s budget and endowment, the campus status as public or private (and if public, the state it’s located in), the nature of the surrounding community (urban, suburban, rural). Nonetheless, in academe, clear tiers and hierarchies determine who gets what when it comes to additional benefits on top of our regular salaries.

Take my initial example of the varying amounts of time off granted over this most-recent winter break. I worked for a long time as a faculty member, so I understand there are no “days off” when it comes to planning your courses and conducting your research, and that an extended winter break gives professors more time to plan. But extending the break for faculty well-being assumes that no one else on the campus was overworked and stressed out during this past fall semester and could use a break.

There is another tension: What does it mean for staff members if professors are never really “off duty”? In fact, despite being told repeatedly that we are “only” staff, we are often expected to respond to faculty requests outside of normal working hours, including weekends, holidays, and evenings.

An easy solution would be to ignore such requests before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m. But taking that approach can lead to complaints to our supervisors (or directly to the provost) that we are not being responsive to faculty needs. And staff members who work directly with students don’t have the luxury of ignoring emails: A student in crisis is a student in crisis no matter what day it is, and it is their role to step in and act.

The idea that somehow our jobs are fundamentally different because we’re supposed to be only working from 9-to-5 is a myth and further alienates us from our faculty colleagues who want to have it both ways with staff: They don’t think we work the same long hours as they do, but they expect us to be on call 24/7.

An obvious solution would be to extend the same benefits to all employees on campus, regardless of rank or status. The risk, of course, is that such a move — instead of leading to better benefits for everyone — could trigger the adjunctification of staff positions.

I heard from staff members at various institutions who said their administration has circumvented providing benefits to staff members by placing them on temporary contracts. We’ve also seen what has happened to grounds, custodial, and food-services positions as those campus jobs have been outsourced to third-party companies so the workers aren’t campus employees. Given the toll the pandemic has taken on college and university budgets, I worry that more and more staff positions will be outsourced or adjunctified.

OK, so a vast expansion of benefits is unlikely. But nonetheless, we should press institutions to extend the same benefits to all employees — because it’s an equity issue. These disparities exist for a group of people who not only make up the majority of employees on most campuses, but also are the most diverse group, in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. A strong case can be made that overcoming this structural inequity is important to the goal of making higher education more equitable and inclusive.

The pandemic has laid bare just how important staff members are to the running of every institution. It’s about time for staff time to be respected and for faculty members and administrators to grasp the disparities that are perpetuated by unequal benefits.

But we don’t get there without the sorts of incremental governance reforms that I’ve been writing about, aimed at more fully integrating staff into campus decision-making culture, including to:

  • Create a staff council to represent staff interests to the administration.
  • Establish staff representation on all major university committees.
  • Add a staff adviser to the president’s management team (much like many presidents have a faculty adviser with a rotating term of one or two years).
  • Be more open about how benefits choices that affect us are made (HR offices are notoriously opaque in their decision making), and give us a say.

If there was one thing I learned when I was a graduate student, it was that shared governance matters. The lack of a voice in campus governance was one of the biggest frustrations I had when I was an adjunct, and it remains a frustration for many staff members: We want to be involved, and not just for “selfish” reasons — such as better benefits — but because we know that staff are integral to the success of our students and our institution, and a happy staff will help achieve institutional goals.

Yes, staff members are different from professors — but not as much as we see reflected in how we are treated by our institutions.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is a learning-design specialist at Georgetown University and an affiliated faculty member in the master’s program in learning, design, and technology.

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