Barnard College’s resident assistants recently made a historic move, becoming one of only a handful of university workers’ groups to unionize since a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling in 2017 cleared the way for such actions. Hot on the heels of Wesleyan residential life employees unionizing this past March and Mount Holyoke’s filing for union recognition just weeks ago, Barnard RAs are only the latest participants in an accelerating unionization movement.
The common motivation for such collective organizing efforts generally centers around the lack of adequate compensation and benefits. This complaint becomes especially marked when considering the situation of resident advisors (RAs) and graduate resident advisors (GRAs) who are expected to work around the clock. This is often framed as a requirement that RAs and GRAs should be virtually available at all times to address residents’ needs. They also have a myriad other responsibilities such as event organizing, administrative work, and leadership that are heaped on them.
Keeping in mind that RAs and GRAs are often full-time students, involved in extracurriculars or even juggling another job, the additional commitment required of them is daunting. Of course, RA and GRA positions are voluntary and are often taken by students because of the benefits provided as compensation.
At Penn, this compensation takes the form of year-round housing and a paltry dining plan. However, considering that RAs and GRAs are basically required to be constantly available, rough calculations can be made as to how much they are compensated by the hour in the form of “benefits.”
RAs/GRAs “are required to spend approximately 15-20 hours per week” on their relevant duties, according to Penn's guidelines. The nature of the role as outlined by the University includes “maintain[ing]a schedule that assures regular interaction with and availability to residents” and “be[ing] available both during the evening and weekends to facilitate community development,” suggesting a commitment—albeit one less active—exceeding that of 15 to 20 hours.
Using conservative estimates that RAs/GRAs are implicitly expected to be available to residents nine hours a day, on average, and taking a generous estimate of the monetary value of Penn’s provided dining and housing plans, dividing by 63 hours a week for approximately 40 weeks yields a meager salary of $7.14 per hour—falling below the minimum wage.
But this is after all a moot point as RAs/GRAs are not paid in the form of wages. Penn, instead, treats the benefits as they would an external scholarship: As opposed to reducing the expected contribution, the University subtracts the total value of RA/GRA benefits from the financial aid these students may have already received in the form of grants.
In this way, depending on the amount of financial aid a student receives, they could see no net financial benefit from being an RA/GRA as their financial aid, which is calculated independently of holding an RA/GRA position, is replaced by valued benefits. As a result of this methodology, students who receive little to no financial aid, benefit the most from being a RA/RGA while those who require the perceived added benefits the most, reap no absolute financial rewards.
This, in turn, may discourage low-income students from applying to be an RA/GRA as they will not receive any extra aid for the, as previously established, inordinate amount of work required. The resulting lack of socioeconomic diversity in the resident advisor staff is problematic for obvious reasons, as RAs and GRAs are often who students first turn to in times of need.
Additionally, since RAs/GRAs are paid in the form of benefits, which can be calculated as a lump sum, there are no avenues through which to receive extra pay or benefits for extra hours worked, events organized, or exceptional support provided to students. Moreover, Penn’s College House and Academic Services (CHAS) does not permit RAs/GRAs to travel home for fall break, Thanksgiving recess, spring recess, and other breaks. Any absence for more than two consecutive days is prohibited except in “extreme emergencies” or if approved in advance.
By framing the current state of affairs in this way, it is clear why students at peer institutions, who operate similarly, have moved towards unionization. The current system at Penn not only exploits RAs/GRAs through lump sum benefits and an extreme lack of breaks, but paradoxically disadvantages low-income students.
As more student employees unionize across higher education, as well as within the Ivy League, Penn RA/GRAs have a unique opportunity to mobilize in the context of a growing movement that is undeniably gaining traction. By doing so they can cement collective bargaining power which would allow them to redress a lengthy list of glaring issues with the operation of the current system of RA/GRA employment.
Under the auspices of union membership, RAs/GRAs can demand compensation in the form of wages, outside the current benefits offered by the University; formal allowance to vacations during major breaks in the academic calendar; request leaves of absence for more flexible reasons; and much more.
While unionization will strengthen the ability of all RAs/GRAs to advocate for their rights and interests and student workers, such an organization would also play a crucial role in protecting and attracting low income students who are being taken advantage of the most under the current system of benefits. Columbia, Barnard, and Dartmouth, among a growing list of universities, have shown that unionization is possible, and that often a large proportion of student workers are in favor of such organization.
Should a similar sentiment exist among RAs/GRAs at Penn, now is the time to organize and unionize. Both for yourself, but also for student workers everywhere.
Editor's Note: This column has been edited to include further details on RAs/GRAs required commitments as outlined by the University's guidelines, as a previous version of this column suggested that RAs'/GRAs' official commitments were inconsistent with official University statements.
VINAY KHOSLA is a College sophomore studying history and political science from Baltimore, Md. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.