In-person readjustment, mask mandates and worker shortages: The state of student employment during COVID-19


Kayla Holleran, a senior accounting major and UK Bookstore employee, hangs merchandise on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, at the UK Bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Kaleb Littleton

While COVID-19 has affected Americans’ lives for almost two years, the job market has been hit especially hard. UK is responding by implementing measures to protect its workers.

Last year’s lockdown and the high number of infections across the U.S. have caused issues for young people who are working or seeking employment. In October, the Economic Policy Institute estimated that those between the ages of 16 and 24 were hit hardest during the pandemic, due in part to being ineligible for some of the stimulus payments and working in industries most affected by COVID-19.

UK took steps to assist employees affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and further support them financially in May 2021. Following efforts from the United Campus Workers union to improve working conditions for UK employees, the university announced it would increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour and provide a 2 percent merit increase on Jan. 1, 2022. At the same time, UK announced childcare provisions if one or both parents are sick, in addition to $1,000 bonuses for some employees.

However, customer service employees face other, non-financial difficulties, such as having to readjust to in-person work. 

On Sept. 25, UK president Eli Capilouto announced UK will require vaccinations for employees; however, protection against COVID-19 is not the only factor student employees have to consider when returning to jobs. Another issue is travel. Students did not have to allocate time for when working and attending classes remotely.

“One of the biggest challenges impacting currently employed students is the ability to have flexibility in their work,” said Sadie Barton, a senior employment consultant with UK. “Due to the nature of the work, many student positions require the employee to be present, in-person during specific times.” 

Barton said returning to in-person work after a long period of working remotely can negatively affect student employees’ well-being.

“Students are having to manage … not only with their work obligations, but also their academics,” Barton said. “Although some of these changes can be welcomed, they can also increase stress and anxiety.”

Returning to in-person operations also raises the question of when and where people should wear masks. Over the summer, Kentucky lifted and re-instated several mask mandates. The most recent change, on Sept. 10, saw Kentucky lawmakers vote to scrap a statewide mask mandate in public schools. 

Despite this, UK has maintained the universal mask requirement it established in August; everyone, regardless of vaccination status, must wear masks while inside UK buildings. These changes place an additional responsibility on employees: making sure their customers wear masks.

In several student workplaces on campus, the mandate hasn’t caused many issues. 

For example, everyone is fairly COVID-conscious at the Cornerstone gaming lounge, student worker and junior computer engineering major Leni Broady said.

“Usually, it’s not a problem,” Broady said. “If someone doesn’t come in with a mask, we tell them to put on a mask, or we give them one. There’s not many issues with that.”

Kaley Wolfe, a junior kinesiology major who works at the NuHealth food store in the Gatton Student Center, and Ariana Spencer, a freshman education major who works for UK Dining, have had similar experiences. 

“Everyone’s been following the rules, which is nice,” Spencer said.

It’s not always easy, though. 

Junior accounting major Nathan Stroud and senior accounting major Kayla Holleran, coworkers at the UK Bookstore, said that while compliance has been good overall, enforcement can be difficult at times. Stroud said that while it took a while to readjust to the reinstalled mandate and some customers still do not wear masks in the bookstore, “that’s to be expected.”

Holleran said she doesn’t think it’s as hard as an outside retail job would be, and that all things considered, the bookstore does a good job maintaining cleanliness and compliance.

“I haven’t noticed anything ridiculous,” Stroud said. “There are of course those who won’t comply, or want something to be in person when we can’t offer it that way. Retail is retail, customer service is customer service.”

Across the Gatton Student Center, the Alumni Gym has had a tougher time. 

One of the gym’s employees, kinesiology major Courtney Williams, said she has had “pushback with following the guidelines with masks.” These guidelines have changed over the past year, from a requirement to wear masks at all times, to the current rules that allow patrons to remove their masks only when actively exercising.

Several months into the reopening process, mask mandate compliance is only one of the problems employers and employees face. Meg Brennan, student worker at the Gatton Student Center Auntie Anne’s, said that when she was hired a month ago, UK seemed “pretty desperate” for her to come in. 

UK Spokesperson Jay Blanton said that there are many student worker jobs currently available, especially in areas like UK Dining and the UK Bookstore.

“These jobs offer good pay and good work experience for our students,” Blanton said. “I can’t quantify the numbers, but we are not unlike a lot of institutions and companies right now that need more workers for important jobs.”