A group of residential assistants (RA) are considering a strike if their demands for changes from USC — following cuts in their financial aid packages — are not met, according to the USC RA Organizing Committee.
The committee launched its campaign Wednesday with a petition for RAs who have collection holds and late fees. Those who have not paid off their USC bills have not been able to register for the spring semester. The petition calls for a stipend to cover lost aid, amnesty from the holds and the establishment of a Resident Assistant Advisory Board.
“Unless we disrupt the livelihood of USC administration and the Residential Education (ResEd) administration, we’re assuming that we will not get the response that we want, which is why we’re creating more collective action,” said Megan Woldstad, a junior accounting student and an RA at Cardinal Gardens, one of USC’s undergraduate apartment complexes. “If it’s just one or two of us, then it’s likely that you will get fired.”
The group of RAs is considering a strike if these demands aren’t met. Because emergency response is one of the main responsibilities of RAs, this poses potential safety risks for students living on campus. If a response is needed, the responsibility would go to someone else.
“All of us genuinely care about our residents, so we want to make sure that they’re also being cared for,” said Woldstad. “But through the strike, we would basically be saying: students need to work with the [Residential College Coordinators] now to get the care that they’re looking for. Because RAs are not going to be the first call if we’re not going to get the compensation that we deserve.’”
Emergency response could be needed at any time of day. RAs are obligated to file a report if they see something wrong, whether it is within the housing complex or while they are out on campus.
Working as an RA is “really taxing” for Woldstad. RAs are one of the most overworked student workers on campus, in her view, because it is difficult to distinguish when they are on- and off-the-clock.
RAs receive a USC Hospitality Residential Dining meal package along with either a single-person bedroom or apartment as compensation for the position, according to the Residential Education at USC website.
Food and housing costs are subtracted from RAs’ cost of attendance, resulting in decreased financial aid, which they now repay in tuition costs not covered by the reduced aid, committee members said in the petition.
“When students apply for the position (and on the website), they are told that the financial compensation for the RA position is in the form of covering the financial aid costs of USC Housing and a meal package,” USC Student Affairs said in a statement to Annenberg Media. “Because each individual’s situation is unique, the financial aid package will affect each student’s overall aid package differently.”
Committee members say they were given their financial aid packages just one to two weeks before they started working.
“A lot of RAs this year have been forced to make a lot of decisions at the last minute because we’re not getting our financial aid until really late in the game,” said Woldstad. “And then we have to figure out how we’re going to pay for the rest of our tuition very abruptly.”
“[Becoming an RA] was supposed to be something where my parents wouldn’t have to worry about housing and dining,” said Makayla Howard, a member of the committee and an RA at Pardee Tower. “I’m a low-income student, also a first-gen student, so it’s hard enough as it is being at USC.”
But now, she’s starting to regret her choice. Howard says she lost $6,000 in financial aid and knows peers who have lost more than $10,000. This loss in grant money can put RAs, especially low-income students, in a vulnerable position.
Howard said that RAs wanted to launch the petition earlier this year in September, but fear of losing their positions and housing kept them from releasing their demands. Class registration holds have kickstarted the committee. “We have to do this right now because people can’t even register for classes until we get this sorted out,” he said.
The committee is demanding all collection holds be removed and that RAs are granted a stipend of $10,730 per semester which would cover the cost of dining and housing at the most expensive residential college, McCarthy Honors Residential College, for equity purposes.
The committee is also advocating for a voice in meetings that discuss the RAs’ role. “It is really, really difficult to have a discussion with the higher-up administration in ResEd,” Woldstad said.
According to Woldstad, it takes about a week to receive a response from ResEd via email, and even then their responses are usually vague. Email notifications about changes in policies often reach RAs at the same time other non-RA students are notified.
“We want to be able to have more open, face-to-face conversations with ResEd to talk about our feelings in the position, our demands, our requests, so that it’s not just ignored and treated as a second thought,” said Woldstad.
RAs at Georgetown University attempted to unionize in 2018 when they were provided a meal plan with only eight meals per week. Although they failed to unionize, the movement led to RAs being promised full room and board, what was deemed an adequate meal plan, and $1000 of the university’s flex dollars, which can be used for “on-campus food outlets.”
Earlier this month, Howard University administrators reached an agreement with RAs after students protested for 34 days. Some students, alumni and faculty members camped out in “an impromptu tent city” to demand reform. Concerns included mold growth in dorms and classrooms, flooding, pests like roaches and rats on campus, and communication difficulties with administration. The students ultimately accomplished their objectives in their agreement with the university.
“It’s a lot more work than I was expecting. While I do love the job, I would say many RAs feel the same,” Woldstad said. “It’s hard to find a work-life balance, hard to understand the mental capacity that it takes to be in the role as well because you’re dealing with really sensitive information all the time.”