AUSTIN (KXAN) — Cara Coligan has worked at H-E-B for the past five years, but nothing could have prepared her for the last eight months.
A senior pursuing a degree in psychology at The University of Texas, Coligan has held her grocery store job since high school to pay for college expenses and other necessities. But, when the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the world in March, her part-time gig became a full-time risk to her physical health and academic success.
“They were begging people to come in because it was getting so crazy … there were many people that worked way over 40 hours,” she recalled of the days early in the pandemic when grocery store lines soared. “When you’re working that much, the standing all day and dealing with everything is really stressful and tiring. Coming home, even if I do have time to do schoolwork, I’m so tired that it’s really hard.”
Of the thousands of students whose lives and educations have changed during the pandemic, student workers are among the hardest hit. Some students who rely on employment to live and study in Austin suddenly lost their source of income to COVID-19. Others who work in essential areas, like Coligan, faced the opposite dilemma. When the pandemic transformed inconspicuous grocery store staff into invaluable essential workers, she found the demands of work overcame her academic life to an impractical and unhealthy extent. The job that enabled her to go to school suddenly became a barrier to her studies.
“No one who works in this area is making a lot of money,” she said. “You can’t just not work when you have people depending on you, or you have to pay rent … The risk versus reward for not working is too much … It kind of sucks that you have to risk your life for a grocery store.”
H-E-B did implement safety protocols at the beginning of the pandemic to protect employees and customers that it maintains today, including plexiglass shields on registers, social distancing markers, and mandatory masking policies. The stores also distributed hospital-grade masks to their employees, but Coligan says there is only so much they can do to stay safe in that environment.
“We can’t be six feet away from each other at all times. It’s not possible,” she said. “When everything first started, I accepted the fact that there’s a really high chance I’ll probably get it. I feel like it’s really laxed up over social distancing. People are just desensitized to it now so it’s not as strict. I think stricter safety protocols for longer would be beneficial.”
UT extends a lifeline
UT Austin has also taken steps to alleviate those added hardships for student workers. UT’s Student Emergency Services, founded in 2007 to assist students facing adversity that affects their academics, provides financial support and educational necessities to unemployed students. It has been operating with an increased budget for higher demand since March.
“There were students who had employment on campus, and then instantly didn’t,” said Sara Kennedy, Manager of Strategic and Executive Communications for UT’s Office of the Dean of Students. “Students lost jobs in the middle of the month — that made it hard to secure rent for the end of the month. … We were really trying to address that immediate emergency situation.”
The office reports it receives around 300 requests for emergency assistance from students in a typical semester. In spring 2020, it received thousands. This increased level of assistance extended into the fall semester, as student employees on and off-campus faced prolonged unemployment.
UT’s services cover everything from free laptops and webcams for online learning, free financial support up to $500, a food pantry, and even professional clothing and scrubs for interviews and internships. While some of these programs’ funding comes from the Office of the Dean of Students, much of it is donation based. Last spring, the UT President’s office announced it would match donations to the Student Emergency Fund up to $2 million.
“This has really shown how much the community at large has stepped up for our students, the incredible generosity of our community to support these endeavors,” Kennedy said. “That support across our community makes everything that we do possible, made it possible for us to step up for our students.”
Students can also find additional support through UT’s Office of Financial Aid, the CARES Act, and the Texas Governor’s office.
Academic policy changes
UT says it is not reducing its heightened level of support for students like Coligan and has made additional measures to take academic burdens off students. On Wednesday, Nov. 25, the UT administration announced that students may choose to take three classes on a “pass/fail” basis through the end of next semester.
“We understand this semester has been enormously difficult, in your classes and in your personal lives,” Interim Provost Daniel Jaffe said. “For many of you, the cumulative toll and anxiety has been amplified by concern about grades, workload, and the impact on your GPA. Following recommendations from student government and the Faculty Council, and after extensive discussion with student and faculty leadership, President Hartzell has approved [Pass/Fail exceptions].”
The measure passed through UT’s Faculty Council on Nov. 23 by an overwhelming 39-12 vote, yet some opponents of the move worry more exceptions will give UT students more leniency than other students enjoy. For UT’s student support services, however, it’s not about extending a lifeline — it’s about leveling the playing field.
“None of these things happen in isolation,” Kennedy said. “And, if our students are being challenged in these kinds of ways, in things that are completely outside of their academic life but could have a negative effect on them as students, we want to do what we can that they are as successful as possible so they are on the path to graduate and go into the career of their choice.”
As for the general public, Coligan says the greatest support that customers can provide for student workers is compassion and compliance. She says those are often in short supply in her line of work.
“I have had customers be so rude,” she said. “I don’t need people to come up to me and tell me how grateful you are. Just being nice and understanding … I have no control over anything.”
From ignoring social-distancing guidelines to yelling over out-of-stock items, customers are one of the largest stressors at Coligan’s work. One time, she remembers, a group of grown men in the parking lot coughed at her from their car, as if to mock her for wearing a mask.
“They were all laughing, like they thought it was funny. I was kind of in shock,” she said.
Still, she says she feels fortunate to be one of the few student workers who has been able to remain employed and stay in Austin.
“I try to remember when I don’t want to go into work that I should be grateful I have a job because I know there are a lot of people who want to be working and are in really bad financial situations,” she said. “I’m at a health risk. Sometimes it’s a lot, but I just try to look at it in a positive way.”