Stipends help fill financial gaps for remote employees

By Isaiah Colbert, Staff Reporter

Jennifer Chavez

After the screen on Meg Elliott’s iPhone 5 broke and was not usable, she said part of her stimulus check went toward buying the iPhone SE because she needed a phone in order to work from home.

“It was a chunk of change to have purchased, but knowing that I’m getting that $20 stipend for a few months helps put a dent in it,” said Elliott, an academic adviser.

On May 19, Columbia implemented the Emergency Remote Work Arrangement policy to address challenges faced by faculty and staff members working remotely due to the state’s stay-at-home mandate.

The policy provides guidelines for remote work during an emergency when some or all college employees are unable to work on campus.

Full-time and part-time faculty and staff working remotely receive a monthly $20 stipend for cellphone and internet fees, provided these services are required to perform the duties of their job. According to the policy, the stipend will end for employees who are no longer working from home during the summer term, and if they return to campus for the Fall semester.

Employees who feel the stipend is insufficient in fully covering expenses can submit an additional request for reimbursement. This does not apply to student employees though, as they do not receive any form of reimbursement.

Craig Sigele, academic manager for the Communication Department and president of the United Staff of Columbia College, said the union mentioned the idea of reimbursements to the college. After numerous meetings, Sigele said the Emergency Remote Work Arrangement was the solution.

Sigele said during a labor management meeting with the college, the union talked to Human Resources about additional expenses staffers incurred while working from home.

We didn’t ask for a stipend,” Sigele said. “We wanted a process for employees to be reimbursed for incurred expenses related to [working from home]. I think this was a good compromise.”

Sigele said many staff members purchased equipment like desk chairs, computer mice and upgraded Wi-Fi and phone plans using personal funds. He said he is unsure whether they spoke with their supervisors about having purchases reimbursed, as most were made before staff were fully aware of the policy and requirements for reimbursement.

It’s a conversation to be had when people speak to their supervisors to see if there’s funds to cover that expense. [The] school’s in a tight place and staff in the union supports the college, and we’re not looking to add expense,” Sigele said.

Sigele said although $20 may not be enough to cover additional costs for everyone, there is at least recognition of the additional expenses. For Sigele, Columbia’s policy system is sufficient because it allows people to request reimbursement for additional work-related expenses.

Will Casey, an academic adviser, said he will not need to submit additional requests for reimbursements in addition to the monthly $20 stipend because his work is paper-free, as he only needs a reliable computer and a good internet connection.

Casey said the Academic Advising office is always busy during the first weeks of each semester and that it will be interesting to see the traffic flow of students trying to reach advisers virtually rather than in the office.

“As long as these systems are working it will be interesting to see if any of it gets a little [strenuous] when we have all the students back on campus this fall,” he said.

Sigele said the union spoke with HR with concerns about WiFi and internet connections being protected to ensure meeting the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, requirements.

Lambrini Lukidis, associate vice president of Strategic Communications and External Relations, was not immediately able to offer more information on FERPA concerns.

Rojhat Avsar, chair of the Faculty Senate’s Financial Affairs Committee and associate professor in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences department, said 128 full-time faculty members responded to a survey sent by Financial Affairs May 12, which asked if they needed additional resources to teach their courses online.

We thought it would be useful to have faculty [members’] perspective to inform those policy changes,” Avsar said.

He said 55.5% of the 128 faculty members who participated said they also incurred some level of expense.

Nearly 80% of respondents said they needed additional items.

According to the survey, the top five additional items needed for remote teaching were a higher-speed internet connection (40%), a newer or faster computer (33%), microphone (31%), headset (30%) and furniture such as a desk or chair (25%).

Avsar said in the “other” category, faculty listed items like external hard drives, portable hotspot devices, anti-plagiarism software, production equipment, pet care and, a video collaboration platform.

“The survey was meant to cover the essential needs and also lead the way for a broader conversation about how to incorporate technology in a way to make online classes much more creative,” Avsar said.

Elliott said she is fortunate she already had a space to work at home, with a laptop and experience in handling sensitive matters over the phone. But she said many faculty and staff at the college have gone to extraordinary lengths to accommodate remote work.

“We’re all willing to step in and take those little extra steps,” Elliott said. “But having that small stipend is a really nice acknowledgement of the extra effort and resources that people are using from their own space and their own time towards that.”