Unveiling exploitation of AmeriCorps volunteers in emergency circumstances
What’s up everybody, it’s dǰ pišpiš. And I feel screwed over. Twice, actually.
Here’s a little context. I became an AmeriCorps member with a local school district during the 2020-21 academic year. As a 2020 uni graduate, this was the best I could do in a tight job market. My role was primarily to tutor AVID high school students and host the school’s after school ‘Homework Club’. I also participated in regular humanitarian projects for the surrounding community and sit my way through various (often painstaking) online trainings.
I want to clarify this article isn’t related to concerns I have about workplace behaviour and discrimination. Those have been the subject of an ongoing state-level inquiry and remediation that I do not feel empowered to speak on publicly at this time. Instead, I will focus purely on the labour and economic aspects of my service in AmeriCorps and why the stipend does not match the circumstances and value of my work.
Let’s start by diving a little deeper into the basics. What do you imagine when you hear I’m an AVID tutor? Do you imagine me in high school classrooms conducting Socratic seminars and academic tutorials? Do you imagine me tutoring students in maths, sciences, literatures, and social studies? What would you imagine my service impact would be? Is it that 67% of AVID students in my school passed maths with a ‘B’ grade or higher? Is it that more students end up at unis, benefitting not only themselves but their families?
Those are quite the things stakeholders want to hear, and frankly, results that are spectacular even in light of the COVID 19 pandemic. But despite what observers say about my accomplishments, way more work went into making that happen simply because of multiple state-created emergencies COVID 19 brought on. I’ll explain.
Since Spring 2020, Washington K-12 schools transitioned (albeit chaotically) to remote learning. I began my AmeriCorps service in September 2020, but almost all secondary school students remained in remote learning through April 2021. More about that important month in a little bit.
On a typical remote school day, I get up early in the morning to check my emails and make breakfast. Many times, I wake up late enough for me not to finish my meal until 10:30 or 12:40, depending on how much aynchronous assignments I need to complete. These asynchronous assignments range from grading student assignments to completing tedious written papers for my supervisors. We tutors support four sychronous hour-long classes, plus 2 hours of homework club for four days of the week and 4.5 hours on the fifth day. That’s up to 6 contact hours per day with children on Zoom, and at least 30 hours per week on camera.
For comparison, let’s calculate how much time a typical uni student on 15 credit hours at University of Washington spends in online classes. 15 credits is roughly three 5-credit introductory humanities courses with 4 contact hours, plus 1 hour for discussion section (3 hours if lab) each week for each course. Sometimes, discussion sections are excluded from the calculation (especially for upper division classes), so students could spend anywhere between 12-18 hours per week on camera. Consider how these courses are scattered across a typical week at different times of day.
As someone who graduated uni during the emergence of coronavirus, I can tell you remote learning was already hard. So you can imagine being on camera for 30 hours/week as a tutor is even more difficult. What makes tutoring so different from being a uni student is the intrinsic emotional investment I had to make to serve at least 300 high school students. On most days, I literally sit behind a plastic screen, not knowing what students are going through in school, and feeling helpless as students often refuse to tell me what’s going on. Many students’ grades tanked for reasons I can’t discern on my own. Studies have recognised the obvious impact COVID 19 has on youth.
Because this was the first time my school district has gone entirely remote, teachers, students, and tutors all had to learn to do small group AVID tutorials on Zoom. This was a very difficult undertaking because there are 10 very specific steps students take to engage in collaborative learning and inquiry. It took the school two quarters to figure out the following. How will students, teachers, and tutors see students’ pre-work during the small groups? How will teachers and tutors track participation? Is it realistic to grade on students’ soft skills as was the case pre-pandemic?
Tutors also had to innovate to operate homework clubs. How do we set up a Zoom? What does tutoring look like when more than one student needs help? Our homework club typically sees only two students at any given minute. There needed to be at least two adults and one student or one adult and two or more students present, so breakout rooms were largely out of the question.
Consider how most of the learning adults did during the pandemic will be thrown out when students return to schools for in-person learning in Fall 2021.
Back to April 2021. Governor Inslee caught on with research and anecdotes about mental health in K-12 schools during COVID 19. He signed an executive order demanding all public schools offer at least 30% of daily in person instructional time to students if their families choose. This raised a myriad of questions and uncertainties for virtually everyone in public schools. For me: Will I serve in-person or remotely? How much emotional work will I have to contribute on top of my responsibilities to support students if more of them return to school in person? What will the schedule look like? What will small-group tutorials look like now that some of the students are in person and some of the students are remote?
I refuse to say remote learning is ‘easy work,’ and I implore anyone saying so to reconsider in light of the considerations I provided. Much of this year was emotionally laborous primarily due to the cycle of learning and un-learning and re-learning I needed to do to support my students. On top of navigating one of the worst mental health crisises in K-12 education, my colleagues also face mental health issues exacerbated by these learning model transitions, limitations of Zoom, and simply overworking themselves to provide the best service they can for students.
How I got screwed by AmeriCorps—twice
Despite the difficulties I faced during remote learning, I managed to produce some of the best outcomes my AmeriCorps program has seen. In some cases, metrics like the pass rate for high school maths exceeded prior years’ pass rates before COVID. This section is where I explain, in light of the difficulties and outcomes, why I feel twice-screwed by AmeriCorps.
I’ll begin with a few calculations and statistics. During my 10.5 months with AmeriCorps, I made $15,225 in stipends before taxes. Unlike my stipends during a prior summer AmeriCorps VISTA term, the state Service Corps takes out FICA in addition to my federal withholding. That’s roughly $1,580 in federal, Social Security, and Medicare taxes throughout my service term—a little more than a month’s worth of pre-tax stipend.
Let’s calculate an hourly wage though as if taxes were out of the question. At the end of my service term with the school district, I racked up exactly 1,806.75 hours of “volunteer” service. When you divide my total stipend by the number of hours I served at the end of the term, that roughly equates to $8.42 per hour.
Now, here are some comparisons.
- An AmeriCorps member earning $1,450/month for 10.5 months and doing only the minimum number of hours (1700) to successfully complete the term will have made $8.96 per hour.
- The 2020 minimum wage for Washington State is $13.50.
- The federal minimum wage is $7.25.
- In 2015, I made $9.47 per hour for a summer internship at Boeing.
- According to Indendent Sector, a national membership organisation for non-profits, the current estimated value of each volunteer hour in the U.S. is $28.54.
- A recent report from Rent.com (cited in Seattle PI) says that one’s household income needs to be at least $82,240 to comfortably afford a one bedroom apartment.
I don’t include the value of fringe benefits (medical insurance, food stamps, education award) for a few reasons. For medical and education, there are inevitably mandatory out of pocket costs—$2,000 maximum for yearly medical, as well as living expenses non-traditional college students often take out loans or work for. For food stamps, different household arrangements or other income could make a member potentially ineligible for benefits. Not all members benefit equally from these fringe benefits, so I do not include them in my calculations.
All things considered, I was really lucky to have found a reasonably affordable living arrangement with three of my mates. I also qualified for the maximum food benefit and had relatively fewer medical expenses. So what exactly was the straw that ****ed the camel’s back?
In late Spring, after a series of trainings, my AmeriCorps site supervisor had an announcement to make regarding the next service term (2021-22). He said the school district is in the process of approving the AmeriCorps project for another year. The district recognises the importance of AmeriCorps volunteers in its schools and decided to raise the living stipend from $1,450/month to $1,945.24/month. Despite the $1b appropriation for AmeriCorps from the American Rescue Plan passed in March (these district stipends do not reflect new federal investment), no additional monetary support for current AmeriCorps members is being provided at the district or state level.
I probably would have felt okay emotionally and financially if it were not for that inappropriate announcement. While I worked all year in a difficult remote learning environment, next year’s tutors will return to serve students in person and get paid at least 33% more in stipends to do so. I felt very demoralised.
No one at the national corporate level understood that current AmeriCorps members in education needed a lift. A news release from AmeriCorps details how it will allocate $1b in American Rescue Plan funding. Crucially, nothing in this news release suggests current members would receive additional support for their work this past year. Once a member, twice ****ed.
AmeriCorps needs a reality check
Based on the government’s recent investment in AmeriCorps, it is clear that AmeriCorps members provide an invaluable service to the country and the communities they serve. This article serves as a reminder that it took COVID-era AmeriCorps members to justify and make these investments possible. I will never forget about the year I did extraordinary things for public schools only to be exploited by AmeriCorps.
The investments made possible by my school district and federal government seem applausable, but they are not grounded in reality. Living stipends and benefits need to reflect ongoing economic experiences of members, and all members should have the opportunity to benefit equally from fringe benefits. AmeriCorps also needs to acknowledge and compensate 2020-21 year members for the work they did during these unusual times.
That’s it. See you.