For many college students in Los Angeles County, their weekly schedules include a lot more than classes, studying with friends and grabbing coffee. They’re also juggling jobs — generally low-paid ones in service or retail — to earn money to pay for rent, groceries and to support their families.

A UCLA Labor Center report published in March surveyed more than 850 working students who attend each of the public community colleges and four-year schools in Los Angeles County and found that two-thirds of community college and Cal State students were working more than 20 hours a week. A majority of working students who went to UCLA worked 16–20 hours a week. Two-thirds of them receive no financial support from their families.

Today, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of these student workers have since been laid off, terminated or furloughed — a situation that could have a chilling effect on their academic progress and ultimately on state’s workforce for years to come, the researchers reported in a Sept. 27 supplement to the pre-pandemic study that surveyed an additional 138 student workers. 

“The unprecedented health and economic crisis compounded the challenges workers and learners face,” said Saba Waheed, research director of the UCLA Labor Center. The study refers to working students as “workers and learners” to recognize their labor as having equal value to anyone else with a job, and so that they’re not devalued as students with part-time jobs. “They faced unemployment, reduced hours or onsite work that put them at risk while adapting to remote learning, changing housing situations and anxiety and stress related to safer-at-home orders.”

Waheed co-led a team of 82 total undergraduate students, some in the labor studies program, and six graduate researchers who surveyed the students in the main study and its supplement. They used a combination of surveys and 100 in-person interviews to highlight the realities of the types of work students do and the responsibilities they have that force them to have jobs while in college. The project also included an extensive review of literature and government data.

The findings from the research suggest that not only has the definition of a “typical college student” evolved, but that colleges and universities, professors and employers should likewise evolve to accommodate these students’ situations and encourage their success, Waheed said.

The new ‘typical college student’

According to U.S. Census data about Los Angeles County, one-third of all college students were 25 years old or older; the majority were people of color; 15% were heads of households; and 12% were also parents. Also according to the most recent census, about 375,000 workers and learners attending public colleges in Los Angeles were employed, with 60% of those earning low wages, defined as two-thirds of the median wage in L.A. County for a full-time worker, and more than one-third working retail or restaurant jobs.

Many of the problems faced by students who are also working arise as a result of failures on behalf of educators and employers to understand the reality of the modern college experience, researchers contend.

“Requests for flexibility, and academic or workplace accommodations for class schedules, are often viewed as signs of either laziness or weakness, when in reality they’re survival tactics,” said Samantha Schwartz, an undergraduate student researcher who interviewed students for the project.

Further hindering the implementation of policies and practices that benefit these working students is that in Los Angeles County only 9% of them are members of a union or worker center, the supplementary report showed. But, 85% of those surveyed in the supplementary study said they would like to join a union, citing positive views on unions securing protections for workers during COVID

COVID-19 and its effect on education 

Coronavirus shutdowns, of course, only accentuated pressures for many student workers, Waheed said, in no small part because they hold down many of the jobs that have been slowest to bounce back, particularly in the service sector.

As a result of the pandemic, 52% percent of student workers in the study have been laid off, terminated or furloughed, and many students who kept their jobs are continuing to work in dangerous frontline positions as essential workers, according to the supplemental study.

Also, nearly half of study respondents had changed their education plans since March, with many students deciding to go straight into graduate programs rather than face an uncertain job market, but even more canceling their plans for attending such programs. Financial incentives were often the deciding factor; students with more flexible financial situations could afford to fast-track their advanced education, whereas students with less financial freedom could not, said Schwartz. These changes in education plans may be reflected in the composition of the pool of skilled workers in five or 10 years.

Finding time for activism

Despite the stress wrought by the pandemic, 62% of those surveyed participated in Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, and about a third joined protests for LGBTQ and immigrant rights.

The response to the pandemic from the government, universities and employers could serve as an inflection point in the fight for the rights of workers and learners and has serious ramifications for Los Angeles’ future labor force, said Jaquelin Tafolla, an undergraduate student researcher at the UCLA Labor Center.

“We’re worried that this scenario will limit the impact of social movements in years to come, as the student workers who have demonstrated interest in fighting for social justice might miss their chance to become further educated and enter the workforce with those goals,” Waheed said. “We’re not just losing potential skilled workers, but also workers who want to make a difference. LA’s future depends on these students.”

Recommendations and solutions 

The report outlined potential solutions for individual employers and professors, as well as for academic and professional institutions.

  • Increase workers and learners’ access to financial resources, housing and food support, health care, including mental health resources, and technological tools. College administrators must work with local and state policymakers to ensure an expansion of scholarships and to provide universal access to the internet for remote learning.
  • Provide professional development training for instructors so they can adapt curricula for the remote classroom and also provide accommodations (technological, grading, assignment) for learners who are encountering new and unexpected challenges. Employers need to create safe and just workplace environments by providing personal protective equipment, free COVID-19 testing, and hazard pay.
  • Unions must invest in expanding their membership to encompass the nonunionized sectors occupied primarily by workers and learners and dedicate time and energy to attending to their needs.
  • Colleges and employers must partner to expand the opportunities learners have to develop their career readiness by offering more paid internships, work-study opportunities, and assistance with navigating the job market.