This story was written by Public Health and Education Reporter Matt Butler.
ITHACA, N.Y. –– Just over 24 hours after releasing a list of demands and announcing a work stoppage, a group of over 50 Cornell University Resident Assistants has agreed to suspend their strike after Cornell officials agreed to meet with them and discuss their demands.
The group had stopped attending virtual trainings, staff meetings, coordinating with supervisors and was declining to work during on-call hours, all to protest Cornell’s treatment of them as employees and to pressure the school into providing extra benefits and protections as the school reopens, in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
The list of demands, which began circulating on social media Wednesday morning, includes calls for alternative compensation (other than the free gym pass they currently get), job security and consistency for Residence Hall Directors and Area Coordinators despite the strike, direct communication from the school’s administration about additional work being placed on RAs as a result of the pandemic, and to terminate the requirement for RAs to meet with their residents 2-3 times per semester. The group claims that some RAs have “upwards of 90 residents per floor,” making the time commitment burdensome and risky.
“RAs are integral to this reopening plan,” the group wrote in its statement. “We need PPE, we need sanitation, we need our concerns to be heard, we need [to] not be overburdened, we need consistency, we need communication… we need empathy, then you can ask for grace.”
Requests for unspecified pay raises and hazard pay for additional work are included, more Personal Protective Equipment, a representative at Housing and Residential Life meetings among school officials and a designated staff liaison, plus “uniform, standardized, and equitable roles and responsibilities” for all RA positions going forward.
“It is time to give us the transparency and empathy we have long begged for,” the group concluded, addressing Cornell’s Executive Director of Housing and Student Life Timothy Blair, Executive Director of Campus Life Enterprise Services Pat Wynn and VP of Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi. “We will not be exploited during a pandemic by the school our parents and supporters entrusted with our health and safety. It’s time to stop just preaching anti-racism, inclusivity, equity, accessibility and intersectionality while simultaneously exploiting and blackmailing marginalized students with the false concept of free housing. It’s time to hear what we have to say, and not to angrily end Zoom calls.”
The group also included a message to Residence Hall Directors and Area Coordinators, who supervise RAs, telling them that the RAs do not blame them for the current conditions and hope that they aren’t punished for the RA’s actions. In total, 53 RAs are signed on to the demands, using their initials. Discussions are underway about what happens if the school delays its response.
“As a group, we are still discussing what actions we will take, because we need to balance the health and safety of our residents with our desire for change,” RA Jack Ross-Pilkington, a senior, said. “We won’t do on-call, however.”
Speaking on behalf of Cornell, Lombardi did answer the letter with a response including an invitation to meet with representatives of the group as soon as possible. He added that Wynn, Blair and Vice President for Human Resources Mary Opperman and Provost Michael Kotlikoff would likely attend the meeting as well.
“Please know how much I appreciate your work, and care deeply about providing an experience that is rewarding and safe,” he wrote. “This fall has presented Cornell with unprecedented challenges and it is critically important that all who play a role in reopening our campus to feel they have the information and support to safely perform their jobs.”
He continued by partially addressing some of the demands on the list, including that every RA should have been given three face coverings in their welcome packet, along with hand sanitizer and a thermometer. He also noted the school’s increased sanitation practices in bathrooms and common areas, and that there will likely be 4500-5000 students living on campus, a steep decline from the usual 7000.
The school’s reopening plan, which calls for a blend of in-person and online learning and a large-scale surveillance testing program, has been a constant point of consternation since it was announced. It relies on early summer surveys the school sent out that indicated thousands of students would be coming back to live in Ithaca during fall semester regardless of whether school was in-person or not, so Cornell officials have argued that it is safer to hold in-person classes and administer their “robust” testing program. Opponents of the plan have argued that those results don’t reflect current student attitudes. Across town, Ithaca College announced Tuesday that it was canceling its plans to bring students on campus for in-person learning.