BYU student employees don’t have sick leave

BYU student Baylee Poulsen works at the BYU Store in August. BYU employs about 14,000 students in part-time jobs that do not offer sick time, a heightened concern during a pandemic. (Hannah Miner)

BYU students with part-time campus jobs can face a difficult decision when they are sick: Do they miss work and go without pay or go to work sick and potentially put others at risk?

That risk during the pandemic can have much broader consequences for the approximately 14,000 students who have on-campus jobs when the impact on roommates who can find themselves quarantined and unable to work or attend classes is factored in.

Undergrads are allowed to work up to 20 hours (19.5 hours if the student is an international student) on campus with no sick leave options besides going without pay. BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said supervisors can arrange with their student employees to continue working during isolation, but there is no option for paid sick leave.

BYU Dining Services Director Dean Wright said his employees — which include all student workers at the dining locations on campus along with vending, catering, concessions and more — are following the guidelines from the BYU Risk Management and Student Employment offices to stay healthy and prevent outbreaks. However, when it comes to working remotely, Wright said, “This is of course very difficult for dining to do.”

Other student employers on campus have greater flexibility to allow students to work from home.

BYU student Washington Pearce tested positive for COVID-19 on April 29 while working at the library, and he was allowed to continue working from home during his three-week isolation. His supervisors assigned him two projects to work on while at home: completing an inventory of DVDs and transcribing for Special Collections. “Overall it was positive, but I felt kinda useless in comparison to my coworkers.”

Pearce said he would normally be able to work up to 40 hours during the summer at the library, but this year the library had to cut hours. “I, as well as most of us, had to pick up a second or third job in order to cover basic necessities.”

In addition, Pearce said BYU’s COVID-19 financial assistance didn’t help him either. “Nobody I’ve known has qualified for aid, even when circumstances have pushed them outside of their financial safe zones.”

While he wishes his on-campus job would offer paid sick leave during the pandemic, he doesn’t think it’s a possibility.

Few universities around the country offer paid sick leave to part-time student employees and most that do only developed the sick leave policies in response to state laws.

For example, the state of Washington passed a law requiring employers to pay sick leave in 2016. The law went into effect in 2018. Students employed by universities in Washington qualify for paid sick leave under the law.

Student employees at the University of Washington can use sick leave for their own illnesses and preventative care and also for illnesses of family members. Student employees “accrue paid sick time off at the end of the month at a rate of one hour for every 40 hours worked,” according to the university’s website.

The University of Connecticut began offering sick leave to student employees in 2014 after the passage of Connecticut’s sick leave law. Student employees at the University of Connecticut also accrue one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked, but they are only eligible to use that sick leave after their 680th hour of employment.

In April, the federal government passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that requires employers of under 500 employees to pay sick leave to those who have to quarantine or care for someone who is in quarantine. The act, however, does not apply to BYU student employees. Last year, BYU employed 15,500 student employees.

Some students who work off-campus have found jobs that offer paid sick leave during the pandemic. BYU senior Bailey Rambo began working in the food retail industry after she lost her job in March due to the pandemic. She said her new employer began offering sick leave to full-time employees when the pandemic started.

“Just like a lot of others, financial strain has been such a big stress in my life due to losing my former job back in March and having my hours majorly cut back,” she said. “Knowing that my new job has created a backup plan for me in case I am exposed to COVID-19, it relieves so much stress.”

The pandemic has changed sick leave policies in multiple ways. One of the reasons companies generally offer sick leave is to encourage employees to stay home when sick, BYU human resources professor Cody Reeves said. When sick employees stay home, it prevents further spread of the disease in the workplace and helps the employee recover more quickly.

“A general motivation behind paid sick leave policies is to try to avoid putting employees in a position where they feel economic pressures to attend work while sick,” Reeves said.

Due to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, more employers are required to offer sick leave during the pandemic, but Reeves said many companies are offering extended sick leave outside of legal requirements.

“Certainly, augmenting paid sick leave policies right now would be easier for organizations whose products or services are in high demand, as they are more likely to have resources that can be invested into such an effort,” Reeves said.

“For organizations whose operations have been shut down or heavily disrupted by the pandemic, it would be an especially tall order to begin offering a new employee benefit like increased sick leave at a time while resources may be scarce.”

However, the pandemic might have made offering paid sick leave less appealing to employers due to the increased availability of remote work opportunities, Reeves said. “The increase in remote work opportunities as a response to the pandemic has arguably made the need for paid sick leave less relevant for some, as some employees can simply work from home as they are able.”

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