Housing lays off 60+ student staff members

Photo courtesy of Mitchell Robert Williams, student publications

Students have been left in limbo this week, as rumors circulating have alleged that 60 Peer Leader (PL) and Resident Advisor (RA) positions are being eliminated for this coming academic year. These Student Staff Members (SSMs) have been informed, either by rumors or by their Hall Directors, that the Housing Department will not be re-hiring 60 of them, with the positions to be filled by new applicants. This has come as a shock in the face to many SSMs, as although they are contracted yearly, they are almost always rehired. 

According to figures given by a Residence Hall Association (RHA) representative, almost 80% of SSMs have been re-hired for the coming year. However the lack of communication regarding the elimination of SSM positions as well as the lack of support for SSMs felt by some has ignited a firestorm in the campus community, led by a number of recent speculative posts on the r/gatech Reddit page. 

A large issue has been that the communication about the hiring of SSMs for the coming academic year has been haphazard, according to SSMs. Some were told that the reason that fewer SSMs were being hired was due to budget cuts for the Housing Department, whereas others were told that the decrease was to lessen the burden on Hall Directors. According to the Student Government Associations’s (SGA) Vice President of Campus Services, Kelly O’Neal, third-year BA, the reason that SSMs were not rehired for the coming academic year was due to individual performance issues, and not due to budget cuts. There is ire among SSMs with this explanation, as it blindsided them. According to an SSM, “the issue lies in the fact that [the Housing Department] has set a precedent that SSMs will be rehired as long as they meet expectations and never communicated that the expectations had changed,” highlighting the communication fallthrough. 

According to RHA President Emmet Miskell, “There was a plan  … to notify SSMs of these changes on January 3rd, 2020, but … that plan fell through because further approvals and considerations [were] needed.” This lack of communication has left many SSMs feeling confused, especially due to the fact that the application for Institute housing closes on February 23rd, leaving SSMs who are not rehired with an incredibly short window to figure out their living arrangements for the coming academic year. 

According to numbers given by a representative of the RHA, the Housing Department is only hiring 233 SSMs for the coming year, down from 293 this year. Out of the current number of 293 SSMs, 177 have applied to be re-hired for the coming year. This would leave 116 spots that would be filled by new applicants. However, due to the Housing Department’s decision to decrease the number of SSMs, only 56 will be hired. Some of the controversy comes in as not all of the 177 returning SSM applicants will be re-hired for the coming year, and the lack of communication regarding this has hindered their ability to seek other housing, whether with the Institute or off campus.  

SSMs have been voicing their concerns about the coming changes to the RA hiring process through a variety of avenues like speaking to the Undergraduate House of Representatives (UHR) of the SGA. “I feel insulted, I feel overlooked, and I feel like I am not important in [the Housing Department’s] eyes anymore,” said an anonymous SSM to the UHR on Tuesday night. In the same session, another SSM asked, “who does this benefit?” in regard to the decrease in the number
of SSMs. 

One of the main concerns that SSMs appear to be having with the changes being implemented by the Housing Department is that although fewer SSMs are being hired, those SSMs are also being restricted more heavily than in previous years, with the Conditions of Employment provided by the Housing Department listing that, “the RA’s principle non-academic activity is their position,” as well as that they “may not assume or continue any paid responsibilities,” with the exception of research or teaching assistantships. The conditions also state that RAs “must be given prior approval from their direct supervisor to be unavailable to assist or respond to the building during duty hours (Weekdays from 7:00 PM – 8:00 AM and 24 hours on weekends).” This heavily restrictive list of duties, among others, led one SSM to ponder how “maintaining personal balance,” a requirement in the job description can, “be achieved when RAs are not allowed to participate in other activities?”

Another concern voiced by SSMs is the lack of mental health support that has been provided by supervising employees such as Hall Directors and Area Managers. According to one SSM, following an incident of a mental health crisis of one of their residents, the Hall Director “took 2 weeks to reach out and … see if [they were] coping well emotionally,” When that same SSM asked for an extension on paperwork due to mental health issues stemming from their resident’s crisis, their Hall Director told them that “having mental health issues should not be impacting [their] ability to do [their] job.” This SSM also stated that they had “[been a] PL for three years and housing has been a huge contributor to degrading my mental health and increasing my stress.” Another SSM asserts that, “[the Housing Department] asks for and then shuts down discussions of mental health struggles. I feel like I have to lie to my bosses or fear repercussions.”

This is not the only area where SSMs have cited a lack of support from the Housing Department, as one SSM attested that they had submitted around “30 maintenance requests and only 7 have been completed”, including lack of working toilets as well as long waits for maintenance to remove mold from living spaces. 

Additionally, despite the fact that the nominal stipend for SSMs is increasing from $300 to $1000 in the coming year, according to calculations by one SSM, that amount only works out to approximately $3 per hour after taking into account the duties of an RA as well as the 15 additional hours of resident contact that they are required to have. The full compensation of an SSM, which is to say their housing, meal plan and stipend, counts as a scholarship on financial aid applications and can end up becoming “more of a financial burden” on SSMs with financial instability. 

Moving forward, several groups have been discussing steps to try and resolve the concerns that have been voiced by SSMs. The RHA, in conjunction with several SSMs, delivered a fifteen page document to the interim director of the Housing Department, Sheree Gibson, outlining some of their concerns and possible next steps. Following the testimonials of SSMs at Tuesday’s UHR session and subsequent special issue session, the SGA has also begun looking into how to address the concerns of SSMs through the formation of an executive

In an email sent to current SSMs at around 8 p.m. this Wednesday by interim Housing Director Sheree Gibson, the Housing Department informed current SSMs of actions that would be taken in attempt to assuage some of the concerns raised by SSMs. 

“Today, all current and new candidates will receive our decision to hire or rehire,” wrote Gibson, before going on to say that they “will allow RAs who have not been asked to return to resubmit the application for the 20-21 academic year.” Gibson’s message goes on to say that the Housing Department is, “giving [SSMs] more time … to apply for housing by February 28.” This is a five day extension from the regular application deadline of February 23rd, giving SSMs just under two weeks from the sending of the email to apply for on campus housing in the case that they are not re-hired. 

This explanation has been met by questions from some SSMs. “There shouldn’t be any positions opened for the SSMs who are appealing the decision to not be rehired since they released all positions today,” said one SSM. The SSM also said that Gibson’s message, “said nothing about the aggressive language regarding personal time and extracurricular activities other than what [Gibson’s] interpretation of the documents is,” raising questions about whether the measures taken by the Housing Department are more than topical stopgap efforts. As one SSM pointed out, those SSMs “using greek housing as a backup have already missed the [housing] deadline,” and they “hope for more transparency in the future.”