UMass Amherst RAs and peer mentors ask for anti-racism training, air labor complaints

  • Naria Sealy, a peer mentor in the UMass Amherst dorms, talks about complaints concerning working conditions for RAs and peer mentors. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bennett Reilly, an RA in the UMass Amherst dorms, talks in their room about complaints concerning working conditions for RAs and peer mentors. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Naria Sealy, a peer mentor in the UMass Amherst dorms, talks about complaints concerning working conditions for RAs and peer mentors. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Naria Sealy, a peer mentor in the UMass Amherst dorms, talks about complaints concerning working conditions for RAs and peer mentors. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bennett Reilly, an RA in the UMass Amherst dorms, talks in their room about complaints concerning working conditions for RAs and peer mentors. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Naria Sealy, a peer mentor in the UMass Amherst dorms, talks about complaints concerning working conditions for RAs and peer mentors. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bennett Reilly, an RA in the UMass dorms, talks in their room about complaints concerning working conditions for RAs and peer mentors. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marissa Mackson, an RA in the UMass Amherst dorms, puts up a bulletin board on which curriculum is provided and required to be put up once a month. This one is on being an active bystander. Mackson and other UMass RAs and peer mentors have raised issues about working conditions. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marissa Mackson, an RA in the UMass Amherst dorms, puts up a bulletin board on which curriculum is provided and required to be put up once a month. This one is on being an active bystander. Mackson and other UMass RAs and peer mentors have raised issues about working conditions. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marissa Mackson, an RA in the UMass Amherst dorms, puts up a bulletin board on which curriculum is provided and required to be put up once a month. This one is on being an active bystander. Mackson and other UMass RAs and peer mentors have raised issues about working conditions. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marissa Mackson, an RA in the UMass Amherst dorms, puts up a bulletin board on which curriculum is provided and required to be put up once a month. This one is on being an active bystander. Mackson and other UMass RAs and peer mentors have raised issues about working conditions. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bennett Reilly, an RA in the UMass Amherst dorms, talks in their room about complaints concerning working conditions for RAs and peer mentors. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marissa Mackson, an RA in the UMass Amherst dorms, puts up a bulletin board on which curriculum is provided and required to be put up once a month. This one is on being an active bystander. Mackson and other UMass RAs and peer mentors have raised issues about working conditions. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/14/2019 12:21:20 AM

AMHERST — Marissa Mackson remembers vividly the moment she heard people at her University of Massachusetts Amherst dormitory yell the N-word several times.

Mackson is a 21-year-old resident assistant, or RA, at Dwight Hall, and said that she was knocking on students’ doors inviting them on a hike when she heard racist chants coming from one dorm room. So she knocked on the door, wrote down the information of the resident, who is white, and filed an incident report. But she said Residential Life management never disciplined the student or sent an email about the incident to the residential cluster. Instead, managers told her she hadn’t followed proper protocol reporting the episode, she said.

Mackson and other members of the union representing RAs and peer mentors — both of whom live in the dorms among their residents (peer mentors help support first-year students, in particular) — say that they asked for anti-racism training during recent bargaining negotiations with UMass Amherst, and that the university countered by offering a broad “discrimination training” that would not have provided concrete advice for responding to bigoted incidents and their aftermath in the dorms.

“It sounds like a watered-down alternative,” said Naria Sealy, who with Mackson co-chairs the Resident Assistant and Peer Mentor Union, a unit of United Auto Workers Local 2322. A series of hate speech incidents roiled campus dorms last year, but Sealy said the university is not appropriately supporting the student workers who respond to those incidents and support affected residents in those dorms. 

“The issue is not RAs and peer mentors — it’s upper Res Life,” Sealy said.

These are just some of the concerns that RAs and peer mentors are raising amid ongoing contract negotiations with UMass Amherst. They also allege that the university often ends up paying them less than the federal minimum wage, given the blurred line between their lives as students and as workers. Sealy said the university calculates those wages differently by including housing. 

“I think they should be giving us higher wages to make up for the fact that we’re on the clock all the time and can’t even go to the bathroom without having to possibly have to work,” Mackson said. “It can be really difficult to draw the line between when you’re off the clock, when you’re home doing work and relaxing, and when you’re an RA.”

RA and peer mentor positions are part-time, with RAs expected to work 20 hours per week and peer mentors 15 hours per week. RAs voted to unionize in 2002, and peer mentors joined the bargaining unit in 2015 after more than a year of pushing for recognition.

UMass Amherst spokesman Edward Blaguszewski said that it is the university’s long-standing practice not to discuss details of ongoing contract negotiations. For that reason, he declined to discuss on the record any of the specific allegations raised by the union members.

“The university has been bargaining in good faith since January 2018, and our negotiators have participated in 25 bargaining sessions,” Blaguszewski said. “We are hopeful of coming to an agreement soon.”

As for the incident in Dwight Hall, Blaguszewski said the incident “involved language used by a student in his room, with the door closed and overhead in the hallway.”

“The matter was addressed by university staff in a personal conversation with the student, and it was determined not to be an act of hate,” Blaguszewski said.

A central complaint that RAs and peer mentors raised with the Gazette concerned their dorm rooms. 

Under the union’s contract, which expired last July, returning RAs receive a free room, valued at around $6,000, as well as $4,850 in pay per academic year. Returning peer mentors make $7,250 per year but have to pay for their own room. 

Living in that room is a requirement of the job, and it’s often the primary place RAs and peer mentors end up meeting with students about their questions and concerns. Mackson, for example, said that an RA office does exist in buildings, but in her case there isn’t one. So she has to go to another building up the road if she wants to use that space to talk with a student.

“It makes more sense for me to open my personal space for that, but that’s also not fair to me,” she said.  

Bennett Reilly, 21, began working as an RA in Baker Hall last year as a junior. Reilly, who uses the pronoun “they,” said the hall they live on is a “designated residential community” for LGBTQ students. The semester Reilly moved in, the university removed “All Gender” bathroom signs in Baker and converted the bathrooms back to women’s and men’s restrooms to bring the university into compliance with the state’s plumbing code. 

It took pressure from the Baker community, and a ruling from the Massachusetts Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters, for gender-inclusive multi-stall bathrooms to be reinstalled. The ordeal added a lot of work onto Reilly’s plate — labor for which they didn’t feel fairly compensated.

“All of the sudden, I had to be a voice for a community I didn’t even know,” said Reilly, who was brand-new to the job at the time. Of their workload at UMass Amherst, Reilly said, “They just add more and they add more, and they don’t give us extra money or any extra compensation whatsoever.”

Reilly added said that in their room they had to push to have the university place a hood over a dryer vent below the window. Reilly said the dryer fumes caused them skin problems and other health concerns. Others described how some buildings don’t have kitchens, meaning RAs and peer mentors have to buy meal plans.

Sealy said the university has proposed increasing the amount of time workers would be on duty without appropriately raising their pay. She also said the university declined to give RAs and peer mentors health care as part of their contracts, which is a problem for Sealy, who said she and other peer mentors and RAs are uninsured.

Sealy said the university seeks to bring in a diverse group of RAs and peer mentors, but then doesn’t ensure those students from different backgrounds have the resources they need. For example, not all students are on their parents’ health care, she said.

“A lot of those people don’t have the privileges the university thinks they do,” Sealy said.  

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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