From eating less to losing lab experiments, student workers struggle amid coronavirus outbreak

Laura Studley

For some, they have started eating less. For others, they have lost lab experiments already in progress. And for many, they have been left in the dark about what’s next. The coronavirus pandemic has not only affected Colorado State University students’ learning environments and living situations, but it has also uprooted many of their jobs and turned their world upside down.

Since its original outbreak in December, COVID-19 has impacted 210 countries as of April 12. With stay-at-home orders given by state governments, at least 265 million Americans have been asked to stay home, according to the New York Times

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The impacts of the virus seem inescapable, especially for those who depend on the University for a paycheck. 

“I lost my job the day we were supposed to reopen from break,” said CSU senior biology major Gretchen Tribken. “I went into my shift at the dining hall only to be told that this would be my last week for a while.” 

Suddenly, everything came crashing down when the governor stated that all gyms and restaurants would close because that meant that we couldn’t do those alternative options anymore and that we would be left with nothing.” -Jocie Munoz, political science and sociology major

On-campus jobs have either asked student employees to work remotely, put their jobs on hold or have placed them on reduced hours.

“The campus closure has definitely been hard,” said CSU senior business administration major Rachel Lucas. “I didn’t lose my job, but my hours were cut back a ton. I used to work about 20 hours a week, but I’m only working about five.”

An email sent out by President Joyce McConnell March 19 said the University was exploring options for student workers. CSU has since made the decision to pay student employees who are available and willing to work, according to the COVID-19 human resources FAQs

CSU senior political science and sociology major Jocie Munoz said she didn’t receive enough notice with her job loss, but given the circumstance, no one did. 

CSU Recreation Center employees were told there would be alternative options to complete their hours, raising students’ hopes that things would be OK, Munoz said. 

“Suddenly, everything came crashing down when the governor stated that all gyms and restaurants would close because that meant that we couldn’t do those alternative options anymore and that we would be left with nothing,” Munoz said.

Emailed job loss notices 

“I was barely informed of the loss of my job,” said undeclared first-year student Virginia Fischi. “I got home for spring break, and once President Joyce McConnell informed the University we would be moving entirely online, I was told in an offhand email, that went to my spam folder as well, that my place of work on campus would be closing and I would no longer have a job.”  

Many students received email notices that informed them of their termination, leaving a lot of workers without a source of income. 

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I don’t know if I can wait that long financially. … My job has been promised when campus reopens, but no one knows when that will be. I don’t know if I can afford to wait for that job back, even though I have worked there for five years and love everyone there.” -Gretchen Tribken, biology major

CSU second-year biology major Katie Duff heard about the possibility of losing her job through a rumor from her co-worker during a shift that happened to be her last before officially losing her job. 

“The next day, CSU sent an email saying we wouldn’t be losing our jobs,” Duff said. “The day after that was the email saying there were no shifts available, so we were forced to quit or lose all of our hours.”

It would be too optimistic to hope for emergency pay, but it would have been appreciated if the University gave enough warning to find a new job, Duff said. 

“My supervisor stated that the rec would be closed for all activities but would remain open during the week for designated time,” Munoz said. “This gave us hope for the longest time.” 

Munoz said her supervisor never informed the staff personally or directly about losing their jobs. The staff was told to read the email that stated the rec center was closing. 

“It sucks because there was always hope that we could be able to work despite the situation because of the communication around finding alternative projects,” Munoz said. 

Fischi said she wished the University would have called student employees or given them more alternative options and advice.

Email was an effective way to communicate when it came to her job, Fischi said. However, she also said phone calls would be a preferred method of communication, as emails can become confusing and provide false information.

“I wish CSU just told us outright,” Duff said. “Even an email telling us the possible plans of action and the best and worst outcomes would have been better than being kept in the dark for weeks.” 

Financial struggles

With rent, utilities, groceries, bills and extra costs piling up, college students have to be mindful of their spending during this time of uncertainty. 

I was barely informed of the loss of my job. I got home for spring break, and once President Joyce McConnell informed the University we would be moving entirely online, I was told in an offhand email that my place of work on campus would be closing and I would no longer have a job.” -Virginia Fischi, undeclared first-year student

CSU senior ecosystem science and sustainability major Drew Semivan said he is eating less and watching his spending, but as a rec employee, he and his employees get paid for a few hours.

Other jobs, such as those at the Office of Admissions, have also worked with students to pay them. 

“At first I was worried about not being able to work as many hours, which would impact my financial situation,” said CSU third-year English major Lucy Lawrence. “But CSU is very generous and is giving all admissions ambassadors a paycheck every two weeks with the amount of money we averaged on our paychecks in the month of February.”

Even so, the financial burden grows heavier and heavier with each passing day. Savings can only last for so long. 

“I had a lot of savings, so I am prepared for a few months, even longer if needed,” Tribken said. “However, I would prefer not to use all my savings, as I have just started to really add to that account.”

Lucas said reduced hours have put her in a bind when it comes to paying for essentials, but it has also helped her become more responsible when it comes to spending money. 

Many students, such as one CSU engineering major who goes by the name Sydney, have had to move home to alleviate some financial struggles.

“Financially, it hasn’t been great,” Sydney said. “I still have a lease in Fort Collins, but I couldn’t really buy groceries without jobs. I was in a position where I could move back home, so I did it, … but the rent check still coming out of my account is a bummer.”

Some on-campus employers have guaranteed students their jobs back when campus reopens, but Tribken fears that may not be enough. 

“I don’t know if I can wait that long financially; … my job has been promised when campus reopens, but no one knows when that will be,” Tribken said. “I don’t know if I can afford to wait for that job back, even though I have worked there for five years and love everyone there.”

Labs and research 

Students working in laboratories had to plan out their experiments to the best of their abilities amid the chaos.

It really sucks being outside my lab because I feel like right now they need everyone they can. I wish I was able to help the front lines more than staying home.” -Ashley Knight, microbiology major

Incubation periods can take days, said CSU sophomore microbiology major Ashley Knight. Knight’s experiment involved working with live cells, allowing for three days after infection to reach an optimal period to work with them. 

“I couldn’t really plan anything out because I was walking in the dark,” Knight said. 

Knight said a graduate student she worked with in the virology lab was conducting an experiment that could take up to a month to complete. If she started it, she would not be able to finish if the campus shut down. 

“Most labs are already prepared for shutdowns to happen,” Knight said. “We can freeze down our cell line and freeze most of the stuff that we have been working on.”

Knight said that although her work currently doesn’t involve mosquitoes, she helps take care of them. 

Knight said her lab handles three main strains of mosquitoes — Aedes aegypti, Culex and Anopheles gambiae — that are grown in the basement of her lab for experiments that revolve around how they’re vectors for transmitting diseases. The mosquitoes require care almost daily.

“The real issue was what to do with our mosquitoes,” Knight said.

The lab decided to reduce the colony just enough to be able to repopulate when students return to campus. 

Lab positions are reliable for returning jobs to undergraduate students and keeping them until graduation because of the time and effort it takes to train them, Knight said. 

“It really sucks being outside my lab because I feel like right now they need everyone they can,” Knight said. “I wish I was able to help the front lines more than staying home.”

University response

The University has provided students with options to continue qualifying for pay, specifically students who were not able to transition to remote work. 

If a student employee is working remotely, employees will be receiving supplemental pay from the department or unit of employment to make up the difference in hours, according to the University HR FAQ

“For example, if you averaged 12 hours a week between January 4 and March 13, but you are now only obtaining three hours a week by working remote, you will receive supplemental pay for the difference,” according to the FAQ. 

Student employees who are not able to work remotely will be paid on their regular pay schedule beginning March 23 through the week of May 15. 

Student workers that were let go and not offered an opportunity to work remotely are encouraged to talk to their direct supervisors to ensure paychecks on their regular pay schedule for March 23 through the week of May 15. 

The same statutes apply to work study employees. 

Laura Studley can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @laurastudley_