Opinion: UC Berkeley privatizes its call center and should reassure students their jobs are safe

Federal visa requirements for international students don’t allow them to work for private companies off-campus.

On July 1, UC Berkeley switched to using a private management company for its call center, leaving many student workers uncertain about their pay, job security and rights.

The uncertainty is particularly acute for international students. Many of them must work on campus because of their citizenship or work-study status, and choose the Cal Calling Center for its competitive wages starting at $15.59 an hour, flexible scheduling, and valuable opportunities to network with alumni. Many of those affected are also work-study students, awarded the opportunity to work at a competitive wage on campus as a part of their financial aid package.

“I don’t have parents like all these other kids out there that are getting supported by mom and dad at home, and I have to be able to stay afloat, so I work 2 or 3 jobs at a time,” said Kaylia Carroll, a 24-year-old student caller. “Being able to maintain a job that is not only flexible but also allows me to do homework on the job is really important.”

What is their job? Workers at the call center telephone alumni to ask for donations for scholarships, career development opportunities, and financial assistance for low-income students. As a former Call Center employee, I would call alumni for the resources I depended on at UC Berkeley. Yet, by largely ignoring student concerns in the transition to a private vendor, UC Berkeley is putting much-needed student jobs and resources in jeopardy. UC Berkeley must immediately reassure these students that their jobs are secure.

UC Berkeley selected the private company Ruffulo, Noel, Levitz (RNL) to manage the Cal Calling Center, a switch that could save $500,000 a year, according to José Rodriguez, a university spokesman. In recent years, the University of California has outsourced many jobs, from janitors to parking attendants, to patient transport, according to the Daily Cal.

Though Pamela Chan, the director of strategic and direct marketing guarantees all current employees will work with the new company, no clear steps have been communicated to international students who do not have an F1 student visa. According to federal law, J-1 visa students, or the international students who rely on the university or government for a substantive portion of their student funding, may only work for an off-campus private vendor if they can prove “serious, urgent, and unforeseen economic circumstances.” Elias Nepa, a student advocate for employees at the Cal Calling Center, said many students fear they won’t qualify.

When asked about international student employment, Rodriguez says they anticipate “most international students will be able to continue working for the call center,” though “the effort on that front remains underway.”

Work-study students, on the other hand, will lose the tax exemptions they currently receive if they choose to move over to the Ruffulo Levitz payroll. This is because the callers will technically be paid by a private company, not the university, and will thus not be using their work-study status. Many work-study students use their employment status with the university to secure food assistance, emergency housing openings, and access to the UC Berkeley Food Pantry. According to Rodriguez, work-study students can be grandfathered in and paid through the university, but they still don’t know if these students will be eligible for bonuses like the rest of call center staff. This means that work-study students might be forced to choose between the possibility of losing work-study benefits or earning less than their coworkers.

Many students are skeptical of university assurances.

“It seems like probably the university doesn’t want to have to pay for the call center, but still get donations from it,” said Caroll.

It’s not just work -study and international students who are worried — it’s most callers, who will lose significant rights and protections offered through on-campus employment. For example, Title IX regulations prohibit sex discrimination in programs receiving federal funds, while the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires employing affirmative action in recruiting students with disabilities. While there are state laws preventing discrimination, students lose an extra level of legal protection and the legal assistance they can get from Title IX experts on campus. Whether employees will have other previous benefits, like flexible scheduling, nighttime hours, and 6-month raise opportunities, are also uncertain.

Callers have been given two student representatives to help with the transition. However, students had no say in who was appointed, and Nepa, the primary advocate, has no decision-making power. Further, Nepa said he was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which limits him in conveying important updates to employees.

A week into the transition, many students still don’t know if they will have their jobs, or, if they keep them, what the terms of their employment will be. However, some students hold out hope that new management, albeit privatized, may give students the protections they need. Carroll summarizes, “maybe it was time that we put this over to a bigger body.”

Veronica Irwin is a UC Berkeley graduate and Bay Area-based journalist reporting on campus activity, local politics, and culture.

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