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resident-advisor-ra-quad-illustration
Credit: Jess Tan

Penn's Resident Advisors and Graduate Associates are demanding fair treatment from the University as the fall semester looms closer, calling for a clear outline of their job expectations and increased compensation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Over 135 RAGAs sent a letter to College Houses and Academic Services demanding CHAS release a full plan for RAGAs’ role in the upcoming academic year and specify campus measures regarding health, safety, and wellness.

“We have received absolutely no information from [CHAS] on what we’re expected to do this fall, how our duty shifts are going to change, and how we’re expected to interact with our residents,” rising College senior and second-time Riepe RA Zoe Osburne said.  

The RAGAs’ demands are split into eight sections: safety provisions, protocols for high-risk situations, staff bathrooms, food, laundry, a year-long contract, financial compensation, and enforcement of the Student Campus Compact. These demands are also listed in a petition, which currently has over 1,100 signatures from students, faculty, staff, and former RAGAs.

The letter was sent to Deputy Provost Beth Winkelstein, CHAS Faculty Director Lisa Lewis, CHAS Director of Four-Year Houses and Residential Programs Ryan Keytack, and CHAS Director of First-Year Houses and Paraprofessional Staff Training Licinia “Lulu” Barrueco Kaliher on July 31. 

Winkelstein and CHAS declined to comment.

In an emailed response to the RAGAs who signed the letter, Winkelstein wrote that CHAS is still planning for the upcoming school year and suggested RAGAs reach out to College House deans and senior staff with specific questions. 

“Let me assure you that the safety and wellbeing of our students, RAGAs, and residents is top of the list,” Winkelstein wrote. “That said, given the nature of the pandemic we know we cannot plan for everything, so what we plan this week may change based on new information, the progression of the virus, and/or public health guidance we receive next week.” 

The RAGAs responded to Winkelstein’s email writing that they felt that the response dismissed their needs, and demanded they receive an updated contract for the coming school year by Aug. 4. 

Credit: Emily Xu An RA room in Lauder College House.

RAGAs’ contracts were voided when their move-in date was changed from Aug. 14 to Aug. 19 — months after RAGAs began to sign their contracts in February. 

A second-year Riepe College House RA who co-wrote the letter said she felt Winkelstein’s response was insufficient and did not provide specific answers to respond to their concerns.

Many of the RAGAs interviewed in this story requested anonymity in fear of repercussions from CHAS for speaking to The Daily Pennsylvanian. 

Winkelstein hosted a Zoom information session on Wednesday to discuss the their concerns, but RAGAs said their questions remain unanswered since Winkelstein muted their mics during the call. 

On Aug. 6, Kaliher sent RAGAs an addendum to their contracts with changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The contract addressed some of their demands, stipulating that CHAS will provide RAGAs with personal protective equipment and sanitizing supplies, and that RAGAs will have access to a kitchen.

In the Zoom meeting, Winkelstein said RAGAs must sign the contracts by Aug. 10, and negotiation will not be permitted.

Rising School of Arts and Sciences Ph.D. fourth year Hector Kilgoe, a returning four-time Riepe GA who co-wrote the letter, said RAGAs wanted CHAS to finalize their contracts and dates by Aug. 4 to give RAGAs time to figure out if they can commit to the COVID-19 health risks and potential financial losses resulting from their job.

An RA in a first-year College House and rising College and Engineering senior said RAGAs should have the option to do their job virtually and should be supplied with PPE given the high number of COVID-19 cases and risk of exposure from students.   

“If we have people coming back from events or parties, they might also be bringing back COVID[-19]," he said. "How do we handle those cases? Do we even deal with it in the first place? Will we have somebody else to deal with it?"

Although Penn announced an update about fall semester on July 31, RAGAs said the University did not provide answers to issues mentioned in the letter, such as housing security for RAGAs after Thanksgiving break. 

In the letter, RAGAs also questioned the enforceability of the Student Campus Compact, which outlines public health and social distancing guidelines for the academic year. Some RAGAs have proposed that there should be a separate staff to enforce the Compact whether it be Penn Police, Student Health Services, or other public safety officials. 

“The [Student] Campus Compact is more of a moral contract and is something that people should be following, but the idea of making RAGAs police that sort of breaches a trust element,” a second-time Riepe RA said.

The GA in Ware said she is particularly concerned with Ware’s shared bathroom policy, which she said may allow students who are potentially asymptomatic to spread COVID-19 within the residence area. 

“If I happen to be taking a shower and a student comes in and takes a shower in the next stall and we’re breathing the same air in the same space, one of us could be potentially spreading the coronavirus without realizing it,” Kilgoe said.

A bathroom in the Quad. Some RAs and GAs are concerned about the risks of shared dorm bathrooms. (Photo by Under the Button Staff)

In the letter, RAGAs demanded Penn provide them full meal plans or a prorated stipend to purchase prepared food. They were also concerned about access to kitchen spaces, which CHAS guaranteed in the addendum to their contracts. 

Each year, RAs and GAs receive free housing in their College House for the year and a partial meal plan as compensation for their job. This year, RAGAs will receive an additional $250 stipend to cover any costs associated with increased technology needs, according to their new contracts. 

RAGAs are also demanding Penn compensate them with hazard pay this semester due to the health risks they will take while living in the dorms. 

With less than two weeks until they are expected to move into their on-campus residences, many RAGAs said the clock is ticking for CHAS to provide more information.

For international RAGAs and other RAGAs who need to travel to campus from far away, the later move-in date has led to new expenses for changing flights or finding interim housing from Aug. 14 to Aug. 19. 

The letter calls on Penn to reimburse RAGAs for any costs incurred by the new date. 

Rising Nursing senior and second-time Riepe RA Kaylee Arndt said she had to reschedule her flight to Philadelphia after learning about the adjusted move-in date. Arndt, a FGLI student, booked her original flight shortly after signing her 2020-21 RA contract in order to purchase the least expensive ticket possible. 

When she realized the move-in date was pushed back, Arndt contacted Kaliher from CHAS, who recommended she call her airline to change her plane ticket but did not offer any financial support or approve an earlier move-in date. Arndt believes CHAS should compensate for the added expenses. 

Many RAGAs are demanding that their contracts guarantee housing until the end of the academic year, as they are unsure whether Penn will require RAGAs to leave campus when all classes move online beginning Nov. 20. 

The addendum to the RAGA contract reads that in the event residents must leave campus due to health regulations or University guidance, RAGAs "would be permitted to remain in residence until the end of the term following guidelines deemed safest by the University."

Penn forced many RAGAs off campus in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left RAGAs worried about losing their housing this year as well. 

A first time RA in Ware College House and rising College junior said she is concerned that if CHAS forces RAs off campus in the fall, she will have to live in a six-person household and is worried she may pass COVID-19 to her grandparents who are at increased risk. 

GAs have protection from being evicted since their Penn housing is considered their permanent residence, but Penn housing for RAs is considered a temporary on-campus residence according to a first-time Quad RA. 

A three-time Quad GA and Ph.D. student said he was one of the RAGAs forced to leave campus in mid-March. At the time, Penn promised RAGAs housing through the end of the school year before terminating their contracts to force most RAGAs off campus with a few days notice. 

The Quad GA, who could not return home to India due to global flight restrictions, had found off-campus housing before being relocated to the high rises by CHAS.

“It's pretty frustrating to feel like we can just get an email and that can change our entire role or move-in date without any sort of process of us agreeing to it or communication with how that's going to affect people coming in,” a returning Ware GA and rising School of Social Policy and Practice second year said. 

Even after receiving their new contracts, RAGAs feel their demands have not been met and are seeking further clarification before signing their contracts. Some RAGAs have already decided to quit because they believe they don’t have enough information to commit to the job.

“I think what Penn needs to understand is there’s about to be a mass RA walkout if they don’t take our demands seriously,” the Ware RA said. 

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