As the University of Wisconsin-Madison joined universities around the country in shutting down dorms, classrooms and event venues because of coronavirus, Jennifer Morzfeld found herself wading through a barrage of emails.
In the midst of finding out about her coursework, the junior political science and international affairs student got one message in particular that left her with a pressing concern, one that thousands of college students now face.
Had she just been laid off?
“We got an email from somebody at the (Memorial Union) saying that student workers are nonessential workers so anybody who has a job at the union is not able to work anymore,” Morzfeld said. “That was pretty much the gist of it. They didn’t provide resources or tell us what we can do — if we can apply for unemployment, if we can still be paid in some capacity.”
Morzfeld is one of 10,000 hourly student workers at UW-Madison alone, paying her way through school on her own. Thousands of other students across the country are in the same, or a similar, situation. They have found out they are “nonessential” workers, without the pay they relied on to cover tuition, rent and other living expenses.
Campus administrators recognize the problem. In an email to students March 26, UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone acknowledged the rapid move to online courses was tough enough, but “those who had campus jobs and have not been able to continue in those jobs are struggling to pay bills.”
UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee announced plans to make payments to their student hourly workers in late March, and other UW System institutions will follow suit with their own payment plans, a system spokesman told the Journal Sentinel.
The payments won’t go far. UW-Madison will pay most of its students $260 in total over two pay dates in April. UW-Milwaukee will provide a one-time, $200 payment to its more than 3,100 student hourly workers. Some students have the ability to work remotely and will get the payment in addition to any hours they log.
Campus leaders haven’t decided whether to make payments to students beyond those April payments.
“It’s definitely a very small amount for what a lot of people need to pay for a lot of things,” said Bethany Deyo, a UW-Milwaukee junior studying digital arts and culture and media studies. “I do appreciate our campus is trying to do something. I understand they probably can’t do too much. I just wish there was something more that could be done.”
Deyo works 18 to 25 hours a week for the campus’ student transportation service “Be On the Safe Side,” earning about $400 per biweekly paycheck. Most of one check each month goes just to cover rent.
UW-Madison’s plan came as a little relief to Morzfeld, who left her three jobs in Madison — two of them on campus and the third at a Cold Stone Creamery — but not her lease. She’d already applied to work at the same pizza parlor as her dad and considered picking up hours at a grocery store near her family home in Milwaukee.
“Definitely glad to be getting at least a portion of my income,” she said.
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UW-Madison hasn’t broken out room-and-board refunds but estimates the pandemic overall will cost at least $100 million.
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Many universities, including UW-Oshkosh, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison, have set up funds to supplement students’ emergency needs and are encouraging those who need more financial help to apply for those funds or emergency loans.
“It’s tough and we definitely are hearing from our students,” UW-Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew Leavitt said. “It’s a balancing act of protecting their personal safety yet preserving their economic stability.”
UW-Oshkosh has nearly 2,000 student employees. Leavitt said the school has federal money for those in the federal work-study program, but the program requires universities to match one-third of the money they use with money from the university’s budget.
“As you can imagine, funds are very, very tight,” Leavitt said.
The university announced its plan to pay students Friday: $200 total across two payments in April. Students in federal work-study jobs will earn their hourly wage for the average number of hours worked by students across campus. The payments will last until the federal money is exhausted.
UW-Madison also plans to pay students in the federal work-study program differently. Rather than paying them the $260, it will pay its 1,700 work-study student employees, who have demonstrated financial need, the equivalent of 10 work hours per week for two weeks.
Izzy Boudnik, a UW-Madison junior studying political science and education policy, is one of those students. A first-generation college student from a low-income household, she said the payments were “the right thing to do,” but may not necessarily be equitable depending on how many hours a student normally worked.
“I get paid $10.75 (per hour), so it sounds like I’ll only be getting $107.50 instead of $130 (each week),” she said.
That math is correct, said UW-Madison spokesman Doug Erickson. He said the university’s plan was meant to provide timely relief and is based on average student earnings. He acknowledged the approach is imperfect.
“This is an attempt to guard against drastic inequities, but the approach doesn’t eliminate them completely,” he said.
‘I didn’t get to say goodbye.’
In addition to the financial impact, students are still absorbing how everything ended so abruptly.
It was a surreal “end” to senior year for Hannah-Jane Kellogg, a former house fellow at UW-Madison’s Chadbourne Hall.
House fellows, UW-Madison’s version of resident assistants, are in a unique position among campus employees. Kellogg’s job was to support the rest of the students living in the building and enforce building rules. She was “on” all the time — even once skipping class to help a student in need.
House fellows are paid by a stipend in addition to free room and board, an income she supplemented by working 10 hours a week at the dorm’s front desk. She earned more than $300 every two weeks in total.
“I financially couldn’t afford my senior year in an apartment, I’ll be honest,” she said.
But that stipend stopped March 13. Her desk job is gone. Kellogg has moved to New York and lives with her father and stepmother. The payment came as a financial relief and showed the university cared and was listening, she said, but the abrupt end to a job she’s held for two years was a surprise.
“We’ve been told we’re essential employees, that’s why we can’t go home early for winter break. For all these different things, (the message is:) ‘We want you to work more,’ ” Kellogg said. “And suddenly it was like, ‘Nope, you’re laid off. Sorry. Goodbye. Good luck.’ “
Morgan Wheeler, a UW-Madison senior studying psychology and neurobiology, ended her job as a student supervisor in Rheta’s Dining Hall, where she’s worked the last four years. She worked 20 hours a week at $11.75 an hour, managing student staff, scheduling and generally keeping things running.
“This is my last semester so I’m basically fired. I can’t come back after this,” said Wheeler, who will earn some paid time off from her other job at a local coffeeshop.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye to any of my co-workers,” she said.
She said she’s worked there longer than most of the professional staff and outlasted four managers.
“To have worked there for four years and to basically just be let off with a four-sentence, impersonal email just saying, ‘You can’t come back’ – it hurt. It was insulting, especially because of everything I gave to the dining hall.”
Follow Devi Shastri on Twitter: @DeviShastri