Overworked and understaffed. Contracts changed with less than a week's notice. Trauma from trespassing incidents. Censored from speaking to the press. All against the backdrop of an all-time peak in COVID-19 cases in Maricopa County.
In fall 2020, a growing number of ASU community assistants (CAs) were dissatisfied with their employment. From the start of the semester, some voiced their concerns about uncertain COVID-19 protocol, overtime hours and resident safety under new entrance policies.
The University’s response, characterized by interviews with seven former CAs, was “dismissive,” “manipulative” and “totally useless.”
Green, a lead CA at the time who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation from the University that could affect their current employment, said staff morale progressively worsened as the fall 2020 semester wore on.
“We started the year exhausted and burnt out, and it didn't really stop,” he said.
Green and other CAs began documenting their grievances by tracking their on-duty hours, noting COVID-19 protocol concerns and recording meetings with management. According to Green, when CAs “very quickly realized that Housing wasn’t listening,” some started coordinating under-the-table meetings with their co-workers. Others went to the press.
An extensive series of interviews, video recordings, documents and emails obtained by State Press Magazine show a widespread effort by ASU CAs to address safety and labor concerns through both formal and informal means during the 2020-21 academic year. Their accusations paint a picture of University Housing’s administrative crackdown on efforts to voice dissent, organize and communicate with the press.
Various sources described the work environment as “exploitative” and “threatening.”Janae Stevenson, a CA in Manzanita Hall at the time, said housing leadership's dismissive response to complaints deterred employees from organizing collective action.
Others, like former Barrett Residential Complex lead CA Yisha Ng, said their organizing efforts were doomed from the start. Reliant on University employment for their food and housing, Ng said CAs had no bargaining power to begin with and were easily taken advantage of.
Christiana Sletten, director of residential life, denied or evaded questions about CAs being overworked and understaffed in fall 2020, University Housing’s knowledge of any collective action organizing, and other CA concerns in an email response on April 27.
"We maintain an open-door policy and recognize that the position is dynamic and busier at certain times of the year than others, such as during move-in/out times," she said in the email on behalf of University Housing.
All seven ex-community assistants who spoke with State Press Magazine agreed on one thing: Their labor was exploited by the University.
The story of labor and safety offenses in ASU student housing during peak pandemic restrictions has gone largely unreported. It is a story of how community assistants attempted to stand up for better working conditions. According to independent interviews with seven previous CAs, it is also a story of how University Housing diminished and undercut their demands in response.
Amid an emerging campus labor movement, it is a story of an ongoing fight for student workers’ rights in America’s universities.
The 2020-21 class of CAs knew they were entering work in the middle of a pandemic. They did not know their contracts would be altered just days before they were expected to sign them.
According to previous reporting from The State Press, 2020-21 CA contracts were not released until late July — months later than in previous years — and staff were only given a few days to sign. The updated contracts included strict travel restrictions and offloaded the work of desk assistants onto CAs.
“The major concerns that we had coming back were about exposure,” Green said. “But it very quickly became clear that staff time was also a major concern.”
When Ng, Stevenson and others raised these concerns to their supervisors, they were told the 20-hour work week stipulated in their contract was a semesterly “average,” and their time on duty would “average out” by the end of the year.
Many CAs were confused and surprised by this “average out” caveat — the word “average” is not present in copies of the 2020-21 contracts obtained by State Press Magazine. Ng called the language in the contract “super vague.”
Sletten said their work schedule was "in the verbal offer script," and that "CAs are informed that the position is 'considered a 20 hour-per-week position by ASU.'" A copy of a 2020-21 contract for CAs says, in bold, "student employees are not permitted to work more than 20 hours per week within the division of EOSS (Educational Outreach and Student Services." A contract for a lead CA includes the same 20-hour mandate as well as: "Those 20 hours will fluctuate depending upon the needs of the community."
According to Ng, the Barrett Residential Complex started the year around 10 CAs short, and other dorms were even more understaffed.
Because CAs were expected to perform more duties with less staff, some found themselves working long days that exceeded the 20 hours per week stipulated by their contract. Ng said some CAs were working 50-60 hours per week, especially in the first weeks of the semester. Stevenson said they were performing triple or quadruple the usual amount of work.
"Those of us that were recording our hours were working, on average, double that," Ng said. "I don't know anyone who was working 20 hours."
Sletten said "University Housing was not made aware of any concerns of Community Assistants working 50-70 hours per week" in the email sent Wednesday.
But CAs did bring their concerns of overwork to University officials, according to multiple screen-recorded Zoom meetings sent to State Press Magazine. The meetings included Sletten, Joanne Vogel, vice president of student services, and Kendra Hunter, then-assistant vice president for student services and dean of students at ASU West, among other university officials.
Ng said she had several private Zoom meetings with multiple Housing and University administrators throughout fall 2020. Her notes indicate that she or another student brought up concerns with being overworked to Housing leadership multiple times.
Ng expressed that CAs "were working 70 to 80 hours a week during move-in," to Hunter and Vogel in a recorded Zoom meeting dated Sept. 11, 2020.
Cate Marken, a CA at the time, called housing's denial of awareness "patently false." Ng called it a "bold-faced lie." Stevenson and Green agreed.
One recording of a Zoom staff meeting dated Oct. 27, 2020, shows Sletten reading one CA's complaint about overworking.
"CAs are regularly working over 20 hours per week. It feels like the job has created demands that make it impossible to balance everything," Sletten read aloud.
Sletten responded: "We do want to make sure that all of you feel connected with the reasons you became a Community Assistant and the reason that you began the job, and we know that that is a commitment that you made to help secure the wellbeing of our students, and we want to support you in that."
Sletten encouraged CAs to reach out to their Community Directors for help and moved on to the next question without further acknowledging the CAs' concern about being overworked.
Ng gave State Press Magazine detailed hour-tracking spreadsheets that indicate she worked more than 50 hours per week in the first four weeks of the semester. Some weeks, it was upwards of 70. Ng said she gave up on tracking after she realized she would have worked more than 300 hours by the end of September — the estimated average for an entire semester.
"We could self-report our hours," Green said. "But the University did not provide us any sort of system to actually verify those hours, so they could just dispute anything we put down."
Working more than 25 hours per week across all on-campus student employment is against the University's student work policy. In Green's opinion, this incentivizes the University to not acknowledge complaints of overwork, since working more than a yearly average of 25 hours per week is grounds for termination in the CA contract.
Michael McQuarrie, director of ASU’s Center for Work and Democracy, said this kind of contract is fairly typical on university campuses. As student workers, CAs aren’t protected as employees by the National Labor Relations Act or by public sector law in Arizona.
Using an average hourly work week may be standard for student worker positions, but that doesn’t mean it's always fair or ethical.
“If they understaff the student workers and there's nobody making them log their hours, you've created a situation where student workers are being exploited anyway," McQuarrie said.
Stevenson said they were also overworked in Manzanita Hall. Both Stevenson and Green described their labor as being "heavily exploited." Violet, a CA at the time who chose to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation from the University, said "we were definitely exploited."
"There is just no feasible way (Sletten) could be ignorant of that given the frequency and severity of complaints we made to upper housing," Marken said.
'Why is this my job?'
Sources expressed frustration with a lack of transparency, consistency and enforcement of University COVID-19 protocol. Green said CAs were routinely in direct contact with unmasked strangers.
In fall 2020, Stevenson worried about the health of immunocompromised co-workers and residents and said they felt the University had set an ultimatum of choosing between their education and their health.
At the beginning of the fall 2020 semester, the University made the decision as part of its COVID-19 protocol to limit the number of entry points at all residence halls. The University also changed how CAs would patrol their part of the complex at night during their duty walks due to social distancing concerns.
This decision, CAs said, left the Barrett Complex with only one entry point at an inconvenient location. In response, residents propped open other gates for easy access — something non-residents used to enter the complex as well. The decision to limit the number of CAs on duty walks left some CAs uncomfortable going out at night alone.
Over the 2020-21 year, The State Press recorded at least 14 trespassing incidents, which includes ASU police reports and CA retellings, involving outsiders following residents and entering the complex's empty rooms. The CAs said the propped-open doors as a result of the entry policy was a contributing factor to more trespassing incidents.
In one instance on Feb. 27, 2021, Marken was the CA on duty when she got a call from a resident near midnight.
A non-resident had entered a vacant room in the complex. When Marken arrived on the floor, multiple ASU police officers were at the door. The community director said that, as the CA on duty, Marken needed to get the keys to the room the trespasser was in and any others that were vacant.
“Why is this my job?” Marken said. “I'm supposed to be handling kids who smoke weed and roommates who argue.”
The incident and others like it left CAs and residents who were aware of the situation uncomfortable in their own dorms and fearful they could be assaulted or harassed.
In another instance last spring, Blue, a CA at the time who asked to remain anonymous, was involved with responding to multiple trespassing incidents.
She heard a knock on her window. She opened her blinds, expecting to see a friend. Instead, it was a man.
For a minute, they locked eyes, and she realized she had seen him before in earlier trespassing incidents.
Blue transferred from her room on the first floor to one higher up. Housing would send out reminders to residents to not let non-residents tailgate into the complex, but CAs felt Housing didn't go far enough to limit the number of trespassings.
"I can't do anything because my job is holding my hands," Blue said. “And the fact that I don't feel safe in my own room, where I had to move somewhere else, it takes something out of you.”
According to Marken and Ng, the spring trespassing incidents were another example where the two CAs felt their concerns had been dismissed by University Housing.
'If you don't like this job you can quit'
According to Green, the CAs' status as student workers meant they "fell through the cracks." He said their complaints were "bounced back and forth" between human resources and student services. There was effectively no official mechanism for addressing their grievances outside of Housing and University administration, Green said.
Many CAs remained "very, very dissatisfied," Stevenson said. Their co-workers' frustration could be heard in restaurants off campus, in late-night bedroom chats and seen in direct messages during Zoom meetings.
"We were angry and we would complain a lot amongst ourselves, but there was really nothing we could do," Violet said.
As the lead CA of her hall, Ng felt responsible for relaying her co-workers' grievances to her supervisors.
Collaborating with her co-workers, Ng helped compile multiple documents detailing their concerns, several of which were sent to and reviewed by State Press Magazine.
One document written by Ng and one other, dated Aug. 31, 2020, cited overwork, understaffing, a hiring freeze and lack of adequate compensation as negative working conditions.
The document claimed senior housing leadership had effectively broken the CAs' contract. It also included an anecdotal list of “high exposure” and "high risk situations" CAs were subjected to, and called the University’s COVID-19 guest policy "vague" and "impossible to enforce."
Green said his immediate supervisor, a community director, was largely understanding of CAs' complaints but also purported to have limited power to influence housing policy. Green’s higher-ups were not quite as understanding.
"We were always told 'If you don’t like this job you can quit, we have a million people who will replace you.'" Green said. "But then when people did quit they never replaced anybody."
Sletten did not directly respond to questions that residence halls were understaffed or that a hiring freeze was in place during fall 2020. In the email sent last Wednesday, she claimed that Housing “worked to align staffing with student need during the fall of 2020, and hired staff positions to meet these needs.”
In response to a question regarding CAs' claims of understaffing in fall 2020, Sletten wrote: "During the initial stages of the pandemic, there were some residents and student staff who elected to remain off-campus during the fall of 2020. During this time, we worked to make staffing adjustments in order to meet the needs of students who lived on campus."
All housing officials State Press Magazine attempted to speak to for this story redirected reporters to Sletten.
'A very threatening culture'
Green described the language senior leadership used toward CAs as "manipulative," because CAs are reliant on University housing.
CAs receive University housing and meal plans and were paid a stipend of either $920 or $1,120 per semester in the 2020-21 academic year. Most become "incredibly dependent" on employment with the University, Green said. For many, quitting wasn't a viable option.
Marken and Violet both said some of their co-workers were at risk of becoming unhoused if the University fired them.
Dissatisfied CAs began to look outside of housing for support. Some, like Green, contacted other University faculty and administrators outside of student housing for advice.
Stevenson, Marken and others began to consider another option: collective action. Through a series of private meetings and group chats across multiple dorms, over a dozen CAs attempted “organizing and planning how to create a union for community assistants,” according to Stevenson.
Marken first discussed collective action with her co-workers early in the fall 2020 semester, including the possibility of striking or forming a union.
"I was like, 'we have to do something,'" Marken said. "They're not treating us like employees or people."
Slowly, Marken began to recruit CAs who were positive about the prospect of unionizing in response to housing administration’s neglect.
In another dorm across campus, Stevenson was doing the same. Like Marken, their recruitment was "very low-key," beginning with conversations about working conditions over dinner and evolving into “under-the-table meetings in our rooms during quiet hours.”
Violet was invited to join the union efforts. She said most CAs involved in under-the-table meetings believed the University would retaliate if they organized.
"It was a very threatening culture," Violet said.
Stevenson said they formed multiple group chats of around 15 CAs across multiple dorms. Organizers researched the possibility of unionizing and compiled preliminary lists of demands — but ultimately never took any concrete action.
All seven ex-CAs interviewed considered senior housing leadership responsible for cultivating a generally hostile work environment.
Sletten said in the email that "University Housing is not aware of any collective action that took place during the Fall of 2020.”
'It went quiet after that'
In Ng's opinion, organizing impactful collective action was never a realistic goal. She brought up the possibility of a strike in several meetings with co-workers, but there were students "desperate enough to keep their job," so her proposals never gained traction.
"The way ASU has inherently set up the position puts you at such a disadvantage," Ng said. "There is no bargaining power."
According to McQuarrie, student workers like CAs are in an especially hopeless situation because there aren't legal mechanisms in place to protect them. Because student workers don't have all the same protections as other employees, they can only exert “moral pressure.
"Ultimately, if you're not forming a union, then the kind of pressure you have is just the kind of pressure that any other student has," McQuarrie said. "You can try to engage the president's office or other executives at the University, but you don't have any legal bargaining power."
Eventually, the efforts to organize CAs died out. Most who had started the semester pushing for change had either become too burnt out to perform their duties in full or had quit.
By mid-August 2020, it became clear that upper housing wasn't listening to CAs' concerns and a union approach would take too long, according to Green. With all other options expended, some discreetly turned to the press.
A number of CAs communicated with reporters from The State Press, the Phoenix New Times and the Wall Street Journal about health and safety conditions in ASU student housing. Nearly all opted to speak anonymously, fearing University retaliation or losing their jobs.
In late August, Stevenson resigned from their CA position.
Several other CAs also quit during the fall. Green said his hall, which began the semester understaffed, had lost another 10 CAs by the end of the 2020-21 school year.
"After I left, there was a lot of scrutiny," Stevenson said. "I was told by some of my former co-workers that when the (Wall Street Journal) article was released they were encouraged not to talk to any press at all. It went quiet after that."
Green, Violet, Ng and Marken all confirmed this claim. They each said they received verbal warnings from housing leadership to not speak about their experiences as CAs to the press.
Marken saw these warnings as an implicit admission from housing leadership that they were in the wrong. Violet said being unable to speak with the press blocked the CAs from getting the help and attention they needed.
"That's how they shut us down from getting any help from the outside world," Violet said. "We just kind of had to face it on our own."
State Press Magazine was given a document of legal questions written by Ng and one other CA, dated Aug. 31, 2020. It features a series of allegations regarding overworking, contract violations and health risks. It also contains a subsection titled "Whistle-Blowing Legality."
The subsection includes the claim "staff were verbally informed that CAs are not permitted to talk to the press in any capacity other than as a student." It poses questions about the First Amendment legality of such policies and notes the verbal warnings were only given after articles in The State Press and Phoenix New Times had been published.
'It might have been a catalyst'
Stevenson said COVID-19 ultimately helped raise the consciousness of many of their co-workers. They resigned disheartened and pessimistic but believe the overall experience has led more student workers to view themselves as essential workers deserving of respect.
"It was intimidating but it wasn’t the end," Stevenson said. "It might have been a catalyst."
During the fall semester, Marken made contact with some professors looking to organize a wall-to-wall union for all University faculty and staff — what would later become an ASU chapter of United Campus Workers of Arizona (UCW Arizona) in December 2020.
Green said some other CAs began communicating with UCW Arizona in spring 2021. Both Marken and Green eventually became members of the union.
UCW Arizona declined to comment on the status of student workers unaffiliated with the union but affirmed their right to "just compensation, safe working conditions, and comprehensive benefits" in an email.
Marken said few CAs have joined UCW Arizona but recommends current CAs become members if they are able. She said the union taught her about her rights as a worker and how to better negotiate with employers.
None of the ex-CA sources were surprised by ASU’s response to their labor and safety concerns.
All were disappointed and angry.
Marken said the University is more concerned with its positive appearance to media and donors than taking care of its student workers. Violet said her time as a CA soured her view of the administration’s priorities.
"My image of ASU as the University kind of just fell over time," Violet said. "I realized that they don't care about their students or their employees. They care about getting more money."
Ng, Green and Marken stayed on as CAs for the remainder of the 2020-21 academic year, and continued advocating for their co-workers and residents throughout.
In the past, Green said University Housing has dismissed these issues as merely complaints of "disgruntled former employees." In fact, Green now works a different job at the University which treats him "immensely better" than housing did, he said.
Stevenson said it is important for current student workers to know that this story is "part of the history of ASU housing." Ng echoed this sentiment; in her opinion, COVID-19 only brought to light and exacerbated pre-existing problems with safety, exploitation and neglect in University Housing.
"All of that is not new. And ASU taking advantage of student workers is also not new," Ng said. "It was highlighted particularly because COVID was a stressor. I don't think it’s unique to the pandemic and I don't think it's going to be fixed after COVID is over."
Wyatt Myskow contributed to the reporting and writing of this article
Header illustration by Nick Devor