Work-study students at Penn Wharton Budget Model were laid off in the middle of the semester without prior warning, prompting the Office of Student Employment to intervene to help get their jobs back.
Seven work-study students who were employed at PWBM received an email on Oct. 26 notifying them of their forthcoming termination on Nov. 5. After reporting the termination to Student Registration and Financial Services, some students were offered their jobs back. The student workers, some of whom identify as first generation and low income, were surprised and disappointed after the sudden layoffs, saying they relied on the income for academic and personal expenses.
Penn First Plus Executive Director Marc Lo said that while he could not comment on this specific situation, terminating a work-study position mid-semester is out of the ordinary.
A work-study student who requested anonymity for fear of losing their employment shared an email with The Daily Pennsylvanian sent by William DiPierre, PWBM data software director and work-study manager, to students on Oct. 26. The email informed the work-study employees that PWBM would no longer need their help and that they would no longer have a job.
"We’ve decided to focus our efforts on a new project and will not be doing curation of the PWBM data for the foreseeable future. As such we will be ending the work program you all participate in as student curators," DiPierre wrote.
The particular project that the seven students had been working on had existed for two years and involved data curation. The students who spoke with the DP had been working on the project for a year and a half, since their first semester at Penn. Students said that they worked individually and remotely with occasional meetings on Microsoft Teams with DiPierre to discuss the project.
DiPierre told the DP that PWBM had decided to terminate the project that the seven work-study students were working on because the program decided to shift gears and that some students' productivity had waned. He added that the agreement for the work-study position was that students would work around 10 hours each week, with some doing more and some doing less.
"We actually separately had a business decision to change tack on what we're building and how we're deploying it," DiPierre said. "I looked at the students [and] either they were already over their allotment of hours for the semester or they weren't doing [the work]."
Prior to their termination, students said that they did not receive any indication that the project would be coming to an end anytime soon.
Wharton and Engineering sophomore Michael Sun, another terminated PWBM employee, said that on his return offer letter in the beginning of this semester, the end date for the work-study program said May 2022. He said that this gave him the impression that he would be working at PWBM for the entire academic year.
Sun said that he had worked with PWBM since September of his first year. He said that he had worked up to 20 hours per week during the academic year and up to 40 hours per week during the summer to help his parents pay for his tuition to Penn.
The anonymous student, who identifies as a first-generation college student, similarly said they felt blindsided when they received the email about their termination because they relied on the income from their work-study to supplement living and academic expenses such as textbooks, groceries, and prescription medications.
Sun also said that he was disheartened that his sudden termination was delivered via email after working for PWBM and with DiPierre for more than a year.
"It's disappointing," Sun said. "Thinking about how they basically laid us off over email — not even over a team meeting — it's disappointing."
On the day they received the termination email, the anonymous student reached out to Penn First Plus for support. The student said Lo contacted SRFS on their behalf, who then spoke to PWBM.
DiPierre said that he received a complaint from Student Employment about the student workers' terminations, which prompted him and PWBM to reopen the work-study positions.
On Nov. 3, students said that they received another email from DiPierre, this time informing them that there was more work available. He added that only students who had not yet worked the 150 hours allotted for this semester's work-study could return to their employment.
Sun said that because he had already worked for 150 hours this semester, he was not able to return to work at PWBM according to the email.
The anonymous student said that neither DiPierre nor PWBM acknowledged that SRFS had been involved with the decision to bring the student workers back. They added that although the email had said that additional work had appeared, the students were instructed to continue working on the data curation project from which they were terminated originally.
"They didn't acknowledge SRFS at all. From my perspective, it's very strange that they didn't apologize," the anonymous student said. "They suddenly went from Oct. 26 to Nov. 3, from being 'You're fired,' to 'Now we have some additional work available.' What the additional work is, I have no idea."
Lo said that when student workers encounter problems in their employment, they are welcome to reach out to P1P as a resource. He also encouraged students to contact their financial aid advisor and Student Employment directly because they run the work-study program at Penn.
He added that when student workers and their employers encounter issues in the work-study program, P1P often facilitates solutions that can involve retraining student workers.
"In my time at Penn, I've never witnessed the accountability process result in letting go of a student worker," he said. "Generally speaking, if a student worker is asked to leave their student employment position, there's some sort of process that is taking place to say: 'This is not a good match for the student or for the office,' and those conversations have taken place over the course of a period of time."