COVID-19 on co-op: Student safety faces off against profits in a pandemic

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Graphic by Harshitha Damodaran

Compared to most other post-secondary institutions, UW had an extra wrench thrown into their decision making during the COVID-19 pandemic: coop.

While it’s easy for UW to cancel its on-campus classes, the decisions surrounding co-op students have, for this term, been largely up to employers.

Employers have reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic on various timelines and with various degrees of effectiveness.

Jane Street Capital, a financial trading firm based in New York City, responded to the outbreak of COVID-19 in North America by terminating all of their internships early. Interns were allowed to return home and paid the full amount they would have earned had they been able to work through to the end of the term.

Imprint spoke to five UW students and agreed not to disclose their names, as the students feared repercussions on their future careers.

One UW student who is currently employed at an e-commerce company in Boston was asked to remain in the United States for the rest of his work term.

The company said they would be unable to pay their interns if they decided to return to Canada to work remotely, and thus their options were to either stay in Boston and work from home or terminate their internship early and return to Canada without pay.

The intern said that most of his peers at the company also decided to remain in the United States. Other companies, such as Facebook, have taken a middle-of-the-road approach.

An intern at the company, who wished to remain anonymous, told Imprint that Facebook established an early, frequent dialogue with its interns about the situation.

Due to the size of the company’s tech campus in Silicon Valley, Facebook established a mandatory work from home initiative across the company very early into COVID-19’s spread in North America.

Later that same week, interns at the company were told they would be given the option to either return home with full pay or, if comfortable, remain in California and continue to work from home. Interns who decided to return home would also have their airfare covered by the company.

For others employed in the United States, the experience has not been as pleasant. One intern at a large technology company in the Seattle area spoke about the lack of a company-wide policy as the outbreak began.

The intern said they began feeling anxious towards the middle of February, since Seattle was one of the first cities in North America to be affected by the disease. However, her employer provided little guidance as to the direction they would take or if interns would even be allowed to work remotely.

The intern was told by human resources that the decision to work from home was up to upper management, who was not very understanding of the situation. As a result, the intern continued to commute to the office every day despite feeling uncomfortable and unsafe.

Later, as the Washington State Government took more drastic measures to curb the outbreak, the company followed suit and directed all its employees to work from home.

This company, although of comparable size to Facebook, did not provide the same working options to its interns as the social media giant did.

As employers reacted to the pandemic, so did UW’s department for Co-operative Education and Career Action (CECA).

In early March, UW interns working internationally started receiving COVID-19 related emails from Anvil Group, the university’s third-party international travel safety and security provider.

These emails informed students on the symptoms of the virus and described methods for prevention. On Mar. 13, CECA followed up with an email to all UW students on co-op asking them to speak with their co-op advisor if they felt concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic.

This email did not provide any recommendations as to whether students should speak to their employers about working from home or discuss returning to Canada for those working internationally.

Just two days later on Mar. 15, CECA sent all students working internationally an email saying, “We urge you to return to Canada or, if you are from a different country, to return to your home country if you feel more comfortable there… We want you to know that you do not have to remain at your employer if you don’t want to.”

Students were also told that returning home would not affect their co-op credit. Students received this email through the morning on Mar. 15, and were asked to make a decision about if they would return home by 11 p.m. the following night.

As Mar. 15 was a Sunday, this provided students with little time to consult with employers or CECA advisors.

Matthew Grant, Director of media relations at UW, said only a single day’s time was given since “[UW] only had one-day notice from public health.”

“We would typically give more notice, but these have been extraordinary circumstances for everyone involved,” said Grant on the behalf of CECA.

Graphic by Harshitha Damodaran

Some students expressed frustration towards CECA’s short timeline, while others were understanding of the situation.

“Retrospectively, it feels like CECA could have reached out earlier, but I also understand that almost everyone didn’t see [the outbreak] getting this bad this fast,” one student working in San Francisco said.

For many, especially non-Canadian nationals working internationally, their decision to return home was made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He announced on Mar. 15 that he would close the Canada-United States border to all non-essential travel, only permitting entry to Canadian nationals. 

Others, including a UW student working at a courier business in San Francisco, decided to return home because they were uncertain about their insurance’s coverage. The intern, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed concern about finding healthcare under his insurance plan in the United States and jumped at the opportunity to work remotely from his home in Toronto.

There were significant financial variables to consider as well. Students returning home to Canada would still be paying rent abroad, and others, namely international students, would also need to find accommodations in Canada for the remainder of the term.

Many students chose UW for their post-secondary education since employment through the co-op program would enable them to afford university, and some now face an uncertain economic future.

This was the case for one student working as a product development engineering intern in Oakville, Ontario. The student, who wished to remain anonymous, was forced to terminate her employment early as she feared for her well-being and was forbidden from working at home.

She reached out to CECA and UW with her concern over being able to afford her tuition and housing for the approaching spring term and was told to apply to UW’s bursaries. However, there is no guarantee she will receive the money she needs.

“If I cannot get any funding at all, I will probably have to defer the term and find a supplemental job to make up for the lost income,” the student said.

Two other interns at an automotive plant in Kitchener were laid off after their plant was shut down indefinitely due to concerns over the virus. 

Grant said UW is exploring how to assist students facing economic hardships, including “how [UW’s] Emergency Loan Program could help.”

UW’s current regulations outline that the Emergency Loan Program provides up to $1,000 interest-free to full-time undergraduate students under the condition that they are Canadian nationals and in satisfactory academic standing. Loans may not be used to cover tuition fees.

The pandemic also affects students who are applying for co-op opportunities over the summer. The food review platform Yelp announced the cancellation of all their internships last week, and many smaller companies have followed suit.

UW responded to these developments on Mar. 20 by reducing the number of co-op credits needed for graduation across all faculties and tweaking requirements in specific programs.

In their email, UW also said no international co-op opportunities would be authorized for the spring 2020 term unless students are allowed to work remotely from Canada.

Grant added that students who have had their spring co-op jobs cancelled will be permitted to change their sequences to enrol in a study-term if they wish to.

UW and CECA said their policies will evolve over the coming weeks as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, but the full extent of the undoubtedly significant repercussions to UW’s thousands of co-op students remain to be seen.

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