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Opinion: Housing Safety student employees deserve investigation into workplace management

(Daily Bruin file photo)

By Mark McGreal

Feb. 25, 2021 2:27 p.m.

UCLA Housing Safety may protect students living on the Hill, but it doesn’t seem concerned about its student workers’ safety.

Former employees of the organization expressed concerns with certain situations they were put in by Housing Safety staff and the way in which they responded to student workers’ concerns. Staffers reportedly responded to legitimate student concerns with jests, if they responded at all.

The claims against UCLA Housing Safety are serious, and they need to be treated with proportional concern. The university should immediately open an investigation into the division’s management and the conduct of its staff members to ensure management doesn’t continue jeopardizing the safety of its student employees. And if the university won’t take action, then students should – in the form of unionization.

Stories told by former employees reveal worrying levels of ineptitude and cruelty on the parts of their managers. Managers allegedly told a worker with little or no training to follow a trespasser on campus. Employees mentioned feeling unsafe, and instead of taking the comments seriously, management reportedly made jokes about buying all of them assault rifles for protection.

Perhaps worst of all, students came to work without fully understanding what their job responsibilities were. Justin Allen, a former Safety Patrol officer from 2018 to 2020 and fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, talked about showing up for a shift and having to work on pipes.

“There was a water project where they had to constantly flush the pipes, and none of us, you know, signed up for it,” Allen said. “It seemed like a job for maintenance, but somehow we got tasked with it.”

That wasn’t the only task Housing Safety employers handed out that fell outside of the parameters of the original job description. The Daily Bruin previously reported that another former employee, Martha Martinez, said her job was to observe and report, but she also had to handle traffic control.

According to the UCLA Housing and Hospitality website, Housing Safety Ambassadors are generally supposed to enforce university rules, inspect property and respond to guests’ inquiries, not chase down trespassers. And while one of the shifts for these employees could involve traffic control, Martinez’s statement indicates that this was not always the case.

Students didn’t apply to these jobs with all of the necessary information, and they might not have if they’d known what the jobs would really entail. UCLA Housing Safety abused its power as an employer to force students to do jobs other departments should have handled.

And this is a major issue with student employment. Students have almost no agency when it comes to dealing with UCLA. They need jobs to pay high tuition fees or exorbitant rent prices in Westwood, and despite the university’s flimsy declaration to the contrary, they have to do what their managers say if they want to keep these jobs.

Given this power dynamic, students need to create a union, even an informal one, to stop on-campus employers from taking advantage of them.

Toby Higbie, faculty chair of UCLA’s labor studies department, said it’s a long process to form a union recognized by law. However, any group of workers can sit down together and create an informal one, he added. These employees could then engage in concerted activity, which is protected under law, to discuss better wages and working conditions without as much fear of retaliation.

And while he isn’t necessarily encouraging students to organize, Higbie said individual students probably aren’t alone in their concerns.

“There’s a lot of other workers who have resources who could be your allies,” Higbie said. “And one of the things that working people have to do generally is find allies and use those coalitions to make things better if that’s what you’re trying to do.”

While the university may be hesitant to meet with students at first, the optics of UCLA students decrying the university’s policies toward workers might spur the administration to take student concerns more seriously.

UCLA Housing Safety has changed some things since the incidents in question. In an emailed statement, the department pointed out that it is now providing transient/trespass training for its staff and has established team groups with dedicated supervisors to increase communication. By its own account, the department is working to improve.

But until students know exactly what the extent of the previous damage was, changes don’t mean much. There is no guarantee that the culture of the organization has changed or that employees actually feel safer.

And it’s nearly impossible to tell how current students are feeling since, as The Bruin reported, current UCLA Housing Safety employees claimed they were told not to speak with media sources. The employee handbook also instructs students to refer all media inquiries regarding UCLA or the Safety Patrol Program to management – the very party responsible for perpetuating the issues students may want to report.

UCLA and UCLA Housing Safety are asking students to trust them in essence.

But until students know exactly what management did to its employees, the danger that it could happen again, or that it is currently happening, is way too high.

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