For liberal studies junior Lindsay Gonor, Cal Poly Orientation’s SLO Days program symbolizes the connection between incoming freshmen and students already adjusted to college.
It was maintaining a positive experience for these first-years that kept Gonor from quitting SLO Days when she and other employees faced disorganized schedules, long hours and missed pay for overtime.
“We had each other,” Gonor said.
SLO Days offered two-day orientation sessions for incoming students running from July to August, either in-person or virtual. The intent of the program is for students to “make connections” and learn about resources available, as stated on the SLO Days webpage of the New Student and Transition Program (NSTP).
SLO Days consisted of seven on-site student employees over summer compared to last year’s team of about 14.
This summer, Cal Poly staff required orientation student employees to work more than eight-hour days with delayed breaks and were reluctant to respond when students complained. It took three students quitting SLO Days and voicing concerns to administrators in order for the university to address its mismanagement.
In July, complaints filed in to Student Affairs. The three employees who quit did not want to be named in this story for fear of risking reconciliation pay promised by the university. They said Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Debi Hill and Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey both met with students to listen to their concerns.
University spokesperson Matt Lazier wrote in an email to Mustang News that these conversations were “to ensure that students are properly informed about employment rules and regulations and properly compensated for time they worked.” That’s because, according to Lazier, some students didn’t take their 15-minute breaks correctly. Some students said they “did not feel comfortable leaving their SLO Days assignments for a break.”
The Summer Crew Contract bound student employees to a Session 1 schedule from 6 a.m. to 12 a.m. and a Session 2 schedule from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., with students alternating sessions each day.
It is required by California law for employees to receive a break at the four-hour mark of working and a meal break for at least a five-hour shift, with the break occurring before five hours. Break violations, such as receiving a break late, entitle employees to one hour of wages for each day there was a violation, according to the state’s labor laws.
The Cal Poly Student Employee Handbook states that students can only work 20 hours with classes and 40 hours without, and they cannot work more than eight hours a day. SLO Days leaders were sometimes working more than 14 hours in one day.
Overtime hours are not mentioned in the Summer Crew Contract, and the student handbook does not allow students to be compensated for unused breaks.
Orientation employees also tracked eight incidents of receiving breaks either late or not at all. For example, some students working as Supporter Guides claimed they went eight hours and 15 minutes without receiving any breaks on day two of SLO Days, according to documents obtained by SLO Days employees.
Cal Poly’s Student Employment Handbook allows supervisors to determine when breaks can be taken.
One SLO Days leader this past summer said that, despite being enrolled in summer classes, they still worked nearly 40 hours a week. They never received an email informing them to work less hours, but wasn’t sure if this was because they never told NSTP they were in two summer classes to begin with. They asked to remain anonymous to protect future chances of being an orientation leader.
This student said employees quitting left more work for remaining staff. While they considered quitting as well, they said they had a sense of guilt for the pile of work that would be left on their peers’ shoulders. But if a larger group of workers walked out, they would have joined.
The communication surrounding overtime pay was not clear to them, as they were told different answers each time.
“We would ask questions, they would give us an answer, then, then they would be like, ‘Oh, wait, no, like, this is actually how it’s gonna work,’” the student said. “[It was] very unorganized.”
Other people shared frustrations through an approximately 20-person group chat without pro staff over the app Signal, an app which encrypts messages, keeping them private from other parties. Despite shared frustrations, not everyone quit because they wanted to see if the experience got better, the SLO Days Leader explained.
Former orientation leaders say they weren’t surprised employees quit this year
Years before Gonor was a SLO Days Leader, others like her wanted to step forward and give back to new students. Yet they experienced similar poor treatment and a lack of communication from professional staff.
When anthropology geography alum Cassandra Smith attended Cal Poly, she knew that she wanted to be involved on campus as much as possible. So, becoming a SLO Days leader the summer after her first year was a “no brainer,” she said.
Smith reapplied to be a SLO Days leader the following year but was not accepted back into the program. Smith felt this was due to “favoritism” and because she went against the norm when discussing different topics.
She brought up the fact that Cal Poly was a predominantly white institution (PWI) and framed her experience around being a white woman in the College of Liberal Arts.
“I wasn’t gonna lie about things and be like, ‘this is the happiest place on earth,’” Smith said. “I was very open and honest about like, ‘Here’s the things that make Cal Poly really sucky.’”
Smith went on to be a WOW leader in 2016, 2017 and 2018 – she graduated in June.
Mechanical engineer senior Chloe Chou also wanted to give incoming students the positive experience she had during her own orientation. However, she didn’t feel that positivity when she was a SLO Days Leader in 2019.
“Given a lot of the ways I was treated, I did not want to go back,” Chou said.
The schedule was “very frustrating” for Chou who said that she put more hours into the job than she signed up for.
Students often worked more than 40 hours without being paid for overtime. Lazier said students are eligible for overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a week, but not when they work more than eight hours in a day.
“We were told that essentially, we’d be working 40 hours,” Chou said. “During this time, though, it was implied that we would be spending more than 40 hours.”
She added that there was a potential to “gain additional hours” even during weeks when 40 hours were not scheduled.
Not only was the schedule demanding for Chou and others, but the uniform left a bad taste in her mouth. She said that orientation leaders were required to wear an “aloha shirt” — a green polo with lighter green hibiscus leaves embellished across it.
With Cal Poly recently dealing with a blackface incident a year prior and just finishing the yakʔitʸutʸu dorms, the intent appeared to be a “cop-out,” culturally speaking, according to Chou.
Chou told NSTP staff her concerns with the uniform. She was told the group would hold a discussion on the shirts in one of their meetings — but that was continuously postponed.
On the Friday before the last SLO Days session, NSTP held a meeting where staff repeatedly encouraged all students to wear the shirts, but ultimately told students the shirt would be optional, Chou said.
SLO Days Leaders want to see structural changes within NSTP moving forward
History junior Collin Marfia said he wanted to do SLO Days this summer to give back to the students as well – and the perk of free housing – but soon became “disappointed” by his experience. Like others, he faced long schedules and a poor experience.
The night of Session two, Marfia clocked out at 9 p.m. Around 10:30, he recalls an Orientation Leadership Team intern asking him to do overtime. He declined, explaining that his dog passed and great grandmother was in hospice care. While his team understood, Marfia said, the professional staff carried on as usual with “no support.”
“I went through two major life events within the span of three days and there was just absolutely no support or any words of encouragement from the upper leadership,” Marfia said. “Just seems kind of a business as usual — keep on trekking.”
Although there were adjustments after the three employees quit, some changes were left unaddressed, according to Marfia. Breaks were not added until Session 9, and he only received reconciliation pay for the month of July.
Communication from NSTP staff was often verbal rather than written down, and would change often. NSTP staff verbally told Marfia and other employees that they would receive pay for days that they worked over eight hours, and then for weeks they worked over 40.
He ended up receiving pay for six hours of overtime for the entire time he was a SLO Days Leader.
“A third of my paycheck was taken out for taxes because they classified that as overtime,” Marfia said. “It was frustrating.”
According to the Code of Federal Regulations, for the hours worked outside of scheduled time, a pay one and a half times their hourly wage is required for those who are employed longer than the number of hours agreed upon each week. Uninterrupted meal breaks must also be provided to employees.
Marfia will not be doing SLO Days next year or WOW because of how NSTP has been structured. He said there needs to be many internal changes, such as adding more staff on the leadership side so that there is less work for everyone involved.
“Our staff just wasn’t big enough,” Marfia said. “Our groups are too big; it was hard to manage them at times.”
Since the three employees quit, other students have said conditions improved.
Lazier previously wrote in August that how breaks were instructed was not clear to employees, so the university then reworked student schedules and worked to make the rules clearer.
“The university is committed to ensuring that students are paid for time they have worked,” Lazier told Mustang News.
Cal Poly Human Resources and Student Payroll reviewed student timecards to determine which students would be owed reconciliation pay for working during breaks or in overtime.
“I feel like I wasn’t fairly compensated for my work,” Marfia said, despite receiving a portion of reconciliation pay.
For Gonor, the issues within SLO Days didn’t change how she felt about her commitment to the program next year. She said she hopes to take her experience and make changes for future employees.
“I really enjoy orientation and new students and bonding with them and creating that culture,” Gonor said. “And I also just have a lot of improvements that I would want to make…I am considering going up and trying to better orientation for next year.”
NSTP Director Andrene Kaiwi-Conner has not responded to multiple requests for comment on what changed since the employees quit, at the time of publication.