Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, student workers at the University of Minnesota Duluth did not have access to paid time off, but measures have since been put in place allowing them PTO for COVID-19-related reasons.

Still, it's not clear to all student workers on campus that they have access to PTO should COVID-19 interfere with their ability to work.

In the U of M system, students are entitled to a few sets of paid sick leave hours under both the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which went into effect April 1, as well as under the University Emergency Paid Leave policy, which has offered PTO for COVID-19 reasons since March 23, after the state declared a peacetime state of emergency.

Over the summer there was a period of time when UMD student employee Keegan Tank was worried he could be a carrier of the coronavirus, but because he needed to pay rent he continued reporting to work not knowing he had access to PTO.

"It's hard to know if I'm sick or been exposed, but I had to pay rent this summer," Tank said.

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There are five main reasons that make employees eligible for PTO under the federal act and the university's emergency paid leave:

  • Government-ordered quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19;
  • Doctor-advised self-isolation related to COVID-19;
  • The presence of COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a diagnosis;
  • Caring for an individual quarantining or isolating;
  • Caring for a child whose school or child care is unavailable.

Full-time employees can receive up to 80 hours of PTO when they are unable to work. Those who work part time, which often applies to students workers, can take paid sick leave equal to the number of hours they work on average over a two-week period. For example, if a student typically works 10 hours a week, they'd be eligible for 20 hours of paid sick leave each under the different leaves offered.

The University of Minnesota Office of Human Resources sent an email out to employees in the system on May 11 sharing those details. Because the letter didn't specifically mention "students" and that the paid leave applied to them, Robert Trousdale, who works at the UMD Kathryn A. Martin Library and supervises students, wrote in a News Tribune "Local View" column that students began working this fall "oblivious of its existence."

"Students are not contract attorneys. Interpretation of federal law should not be required to obtain basic workplace protections — such as newfound access to sick leave in the middle of a pandemic," Trousdale said.

All five of the student workers the News Tribune spoke to on the UMD campus were not aware that they could take paid sick leave should they need to self-isolate, quarantine or help care for someone else.

Sam Wolf, circulation supervisor in the UMD library, also said that while it was unclear to her that the students she supervises could take paid sick leave for COVID-19 reasons, it's easy for details to get lost within all the information the university has shared.

"To be honest, at least on the circulation end, we've just had too many things going on," Wolf said. "I'm going to make sure my students are informed."

Jake Ricker, public relations director for the University of Minnesota said that additional communications on PTO options will continue into the fall when the highest number of employees, including students, return to work.

"Information has been available on campus and on systemwide websites regarding pandemic-related topics, including emergency paid leaves but, in anticipation of fall semester needs, human resources is reviewing the experience with these leaves to this point," Ricker said. "Any updates or changes will be broadly communicated."

Ultimately, human resources staff work with supervisors to get the message to other employees, including students.

Michael Lindau, a senior at UMD who also works on campus, said on Thursday that a supervisor hadn't notified him about PTO, but emphasized that supervisors have made it clear to student workers that they should always "play it safe" if they feel they have been exposed to COVID-19.

"I appreciate that a lot," Lindau said. "More information just needs to be put out there and shared with us. As much as they have made it clear to stay home and not come in, some people probably don't have the choice to not make that money. I could definitely foresee people still coming in."

While UMD is one of the three U of M campuses that has postponed face-to-face instruction and move-in dates by at least two weeks, employees approved to work on campus are allowed to continue doing so.