By DANYELLE KHMARA
Josette Abrigada and Leandra Bailey work through Pima Community College’s Federal Work-Study program and were among the many students affected by sudden cuts to individual FWS funding.
Abrigada, who has worked in the West Campus Student Life Center since September 2014, said she now needs to find a second job. As a full-time student, she worries that will affect her studies.
“Obviously, the money that I was relying on was the money that I was using to buy food, to pay rent and to live,” Abrigada said. “I was working here, part time, so that I could focus on school, but getting a new job is definitely going to make that harder.”
The U.S. Department of Education funds the FWS program. When students are hired, they are awarded a certain amount of money for the entire year, beginning at the end of August. They have the opportunity to earn that money through hours worked.
Gretchen Shaulis, Pima’s FWS coordinator, said the program employs a certain number of students every year with the idea that, most of the time, the students won’t work enough hours to earn their entire award.
“We will award as many students as we can and then typically, in the end, we come out pretty close to even,” she said.
This year, students continued to work after they had already earned their award amount. To avoid over-spending, the FWS program decided to stop hiring and to implement cuts to awards already allotted.
“When we started to reconcile at the end of fall, that’s where we saw that trend,” Shaulis said. “They were spending way more than what they were allotted for. And if that trend continued, then we were going to be in some serious trouble.”
Abrigada didn’t know why the cuts were made and said she might not have taken the job if she had known the funding would get reduced. Rather, she would have looked for a job before the middle of the semester that could have afforded her necessities.
“My coordinators didn’t really have an explanation given to them, so they couldn’t really give us an explanation,” she said.
Jennifer Wellborn, the FWS supervisor for West Campus Student Life, said she had to go back and forth with financial aid to understand the reason for the cuts.
“We didn’t necessarily understand right away what we needed to explain to them because it wasn’t explained to us very well,” Wellborn said about conveying the news to students.
After she got an explanation, Wellborn understood why the FWS program had to make the cuts, but she was surprised administrators didn’t anticipate the overspending before the middle of the spring semester.
“Obviously, it affects our student workers because it means they can’t work as many hours,” she said. “And they rely on that money for rent and food.”
The FWS program originally told Wellborn that the four students working in her department had to take a mandatory two weeks off.
“We told them, ‘That’s not really OK,’ because there wasn’t a lot of notice,” Wellborn said.
The FWS program was willing to work with the supervisors and amended the decision, Wellborn said. FWS decided that each student would cut 24 work hours over the duration of the semester.
“For us advocating for our student employees, it can have a big impact to just say, ‘You can’t work for two weeks,’” Wellborn said “That’s a whole paycheck. So instead, allow them to stretch it out over a few pay periods.”
Bailey works in the West Campus Student Life Center and had a similar experience as Abrigada.
“There wasn’t really a warning,” she said. “It just kind of happened. There was a great lack of communication from whoever is in charge of those budget cuts.”
Bailey even questioned the legality of retracting the awarded money.
“They told us at the beginning, ‘This is the amount of money you’re going to receive if you work the necessary amount of hours,’” she said. “Now all of a sudden it’s changing, three-fourths through the year. I didn’t think that was allowed.”
Jeffery Silvyn, general council on legal issues for PCC, said he knew nothing about the issue.
Bailey no longer has enough money to pay her bills and necessities and is starting to job hunt.
“I’m going to have to look for something else in addition to this or instead of this position,” she said.
She originally took on the position at Student Life because of the convenience of working at the school and the flexible hours.
“Now things are going to have to change for me,” she said.
Full-time student Autumn DeMoss interviewed in February to help staff the West Campus Creative Writing Center and was told she had the job. The interview was on a Friday, but she got a call the following Monday telling her there was no more funding.
“I needed the job to pay for food and gas,” she said.
She wasn’t given any explanation.
“All anyone knew is that they ran out of funding for some reason,” DeMoss said. “I kind of want to know what happened.”
When students earn more than the money they were awarded, labor laws still require that they be paid. Many students whose overages led to the pay cuts continue to work through the FWS program.
“There are no penalties in the FWS program,” Shaulis said. “All FWS students were reduced by the same amount to prevent the program as a whole from overspending.”
Shaulis wouldn’t specify exactly how many students are in the program this year or which departments overspent, only that they saw widespread overspending among many departments.
FWS supervisors in each department, in collaboration with the students, are responsible for keeping track of the funds, Shaulis said.
“We also typically try to stay on top of them,” she said. “But there’s only so much I can do. It’s got to be an effort from both sides.”
Shaulis and the financial aid executive director, Terra Benson, plan to start conducting workshops with the supervisors to ensure better tracking of students’ awards and balances in the future.
“Let’s train better,” Shaulis said. “And let’s go out there and have that better understanding from the get-go, so they see the bigger picture, so that we don’t have to have these conversations halfway through. Let’s have them upfront.”
Pima has tentative FWS funding for the 2015-16 school year, but the Department of Education has made cuts to the program over the last few years.
“We will award and hire as many students as we can,” Shaulis said. “We still have a very popular, progressing-forward program.”
PCC typically hires more than 250 students per year, throughout all six campuses.
The college will host a National Student Employment Week during the second full week of April. FWS representatives will be at the campuses.
Shaulis encouraged students to talk with the FWS representatives and give feedback.
“We know how important this program is to the students and the college,” she said. “We went through this bump and we’ll make sure that we can try to prevent it going forward.”
Reporter also felt cuts
I work at the West Campus through the Federal Work-Study program. Last August, I divided my hours evenly over the entire school year to make sure I would have a set amount of money in each bimonthly check. I then planned my classes and other jobs accordingly.
I was told by my supervisor about the cuts on March 9. In disbelief, I went online to look at my financial aid awards.
The numbers had been changed. My spring award had been reduced by $367, and my award for Fall 2014 had been retroactively reduced by $76. In other words, $443 was cut during the last eight weeks of the fiscal school year, from a fund I had been told was already mine.
The only email I received about it from Pima’s financial aid office came on March 17.
-By Danyelle Khmara