Student workers struggle to remain financially independent following coronavirus lay-offs

Many on-campus workers search for off-campus jobs, rely on parental support

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Rutuja Sawant knows the value of hard work. This spring, the senior media studies major juggled three campus jobs in addition to a full-time course load. 

When UB announced its transition to distance learning, Sawant’s bosses at Interdivisional Marketing and Communication had to give her remote hours. The Office of Admissions couldn't. 

The centers were forced to cancel all upcoming events following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s March 22 executive order limiting “all non-essential gatherings of individuals of any size for any reason.” 

As a result, Sawant is one of approximately 3,000 student workers affected by statewide regulations ordering “non-essential” workers to stay home. Campus-wide layoffs left thousands unemployed and some unable to pay for food or rent across the state. While campus employers like University Libraries and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are paying employees to stay home, private corporations, like Campus Dining and Shops, are not. 

Some students have turned to jobs at essential businesses like pharmacies, grocery stores and restaurants in the greater Buffalo community after being laid off, but many international students and students living with sick relatives can’t work off campus. This leaves many student-employees like Sawant, some of whom rely on campus jobs as their primary source of income, struggling to maintain their financial independence.

Sawant, who is originally from Mumbai, India, cannot work off-campus due to her student visa’s work restrictions. She now worries she’ll have to ask her parents for support. 

“I cover my own living expenses and I am worried that because of [the pandemic] I will have to ask my parents for money,” Sawant said. 

“I prefer to be independent because being an international student at UB is already really expensive and I want to help lessen the burden on my family. I also have younger siblings who we need to save up for, so I try to cover as many [of my own] expenses as I can.”

On Feb. 22, UB received $100,000 from the Gerstner Family Foundation and the Heckscher Foundation for Children to increase its emergency funding to temporarily assist students struggling to remain enrolled in school. But UB officials expect the number of students who need aid to rise as lay-offs continue.

Unemployment and underemployment rates have more than doubled since Cuomo announced the state of emergency in March, with traffic for the state department’s unemployment website rising nearly 900% between March 23 and March 28, according to statistics published by the New York State Department of Labor on April 2. During the week ending on March 28, 366,403 New Yorkers had filed for unemployment — up 286,404 from the week before, according to the same announcement from the NYSDOL. College students, however, are usually ineligible to receive unemployment checks because taxing authorities count students under the age of 24 as dependents of their parents. UB students who are employed by SUNY, however, are considered state employees, which means they are eligible for state employee funding. 

Jerome Machynski, a junior business major, does not qualify as a state employee because Ellicott Food Court –– where he works –– is privately owned and managed by Campus Dining and Shops.

On March 23, CDS emailed student workers announcing that it would no longer employ students at its dining halls. 

Machynski, who started working at Ellicott in August, said his campus dining job was his “main source of income” before he received the email while visiting family in New York City. 

“CDS sent out an email to all student-employees basically saying that all student workers will no longer be scheduled for work for the rest of the semester,” Machynski said. “Now we will have to find a job so quickly.” 

Machynski returned to his on-campus residence in Buffalo, where the number of coronavirus cases is approximately 63 times fewer than the 98,308 confirmed cases in New York City, as of Sunday. He returned in hopes of gaining employment at an essential business like a grocery store. 

But Manchynski said he is “fortunate” compared to students he knows who are unable to apply for off-campus jobs.  

On March 18, UB announced on its Library New Center webpage that all university libraries except Silverman would close. Trinity Mohr, a junior communication major and student supervisor at Lockwood, was laid off alongside dozens of her co-workers. 

Mohr will receive a state employee check equal to the “average of [their first] two paychecks from 2020-21.” 

Before Cuomo implemented social distancing laws, Mohr averaged 20 hours per week while picking up extra shifts at the Music Library and Abbott. She can’t apply for off-campus jobs because she fears passing the virus along to her housemate who has a chronic health condition. The state, however, will only pay Mohr’s normal work schedule until April 15, according to guidelines from the Governor's Office of Employee Relations (GOER). 

“I live with someone that’s extremely high risk — as in, if she gets the virus, we don’t expect recovery,” Mohr said. “So I’ve been spending a lot of time doing things for her and helping out. I don’t have the time to pick up another job.” 

Still, Mohr considers herself “lucky” because she lives at home and receives scholarship funds that cover her UB tuition. Those scholarships, however, don’t cover student fees, which cost Mohr over $1,500 each semester. 

“So I’m concerned as to how this will affect my ability to pay for that,” Mohr said. “I’d rather not take out a loan or use a payment plan, but that might end up being the case.” 

After that date, Mohr and her co-workers will live in a state of “uncertainty.”

“Do we get ready to apply for unemployment? Do we try to take on another part-time job during this crisis?” 

“For now we're okay, but we're in a state of limbo.”

Elizabeth Napolitano is the assistant news editor and can be reached at elizabeth.napolitano@ubspectrum.com or on Twitter @LizKNapolitano.