Pandemic staff shortages affect administrative offices across campus

As students return to campus this semester, several of Occidental College’s administrative offices — admissions, financial aid and Residential Education & Housing Services (REHS) — are operating with less staff than usual. According to Assistant Vice President for Strategic Enrollment and Dean of Admission Charlie Leizear, this is in part due to the college’s decision to implement a college-wide hiring freeze in March 2020 that lasted into the summer of 2021.

According to Leizear, the admissions and financial aid offices would have a total of 27 staff members when fully staffed, but there are only 20 as of Nov. 12. Of the seven vacancies, one is the director of enrollment marketing, two are recruitment positions, three are financial aid counselors and one is a front desk job.

According to Leizear, Occidental’s hiring freeze meant the admissions office did not post job openings until the start of Fall 2021. As a result of the staff vacancy, existing admissions staff have had to take on a larger workload, according to Leizear.

“No office likes to be short-staffed. We have a fantastic admissions staff that steps up and is working 125 percent to make sure everything works,” Leizear said.

Ruby Ferehawk ‘21 is an admissions counselor and recent Occidental graduate. A former student worker in the admissions office, Ferehawk entered her current role in July, only a few weeks after her graduation. Ferehawk said while there have been noticeable effects from staff vacancies, in her experience, the vacancies in the admissions office have not been a major burden.

“We’re not super understaffed,” Ferehawk said. “We were in the midst of COVID, but it wasn’t that big of a deal because we didn’t have on-campus visitors and there were less applications. So, it’s been okay.”

As the early and regular decision application deadlines approach in November and January, the office of admissions staff are entering their most stressful period of the year, according to Leizear, reading 7,000 applications while short staffed. Leizear said the admissions office also hires seasonal application readers every year who can help share the workload.

According to Leizear, admissions is trying to fill at least one of the two vacant recruitment positions before January 2022. Hiring in winter poses unique challenges since the process normally takes place over summer, so staff can work until the end of the school year before changing jobs, Leizear said.

“We’re hopeful, but we’re not sure what the pool of candidates would look like in November,” Leizear said.

According to Director of Financial Aid Sheryl Reinschmidt, who assumed her position in October 2021, during the pandemic, the financial aid staff dropped from six people to four.  

“All of our current vacancies occurred over summer,” Reinschmidt said via email. “We originally had four financial aid counselors including the director, but will be expanding the office by one counselor. Once full staffed, the Office of Financial Aid will consist of five counselors, including the director, an administrative assistant, and a coordinator.”

Reinschmidt said the financial aid office also hires two seasonal staff during busy periods but this year the seasonal staff’s role has been expanded to make up for lost staff.

Julia Nukaya, financial aid office coordinator, began her role in July. Nukaya said her position became more extensive as the financial aid office lost staff during the pandemic. Nukaya said that staffing shortages in other offices, including human resources and the business office, have also added challenges to her role and the financial aid office as a whole.

“Everyone’s stepped up and taken on what they needed to do to get things done,” Nukaya said. “Everything became a bit more intense.”

The financial aid office has been able to continue functioning normally, according to Nukaya, in part due to a network of support within the office itself.

“We have great communication within the office,” Nukaya said. “We all try to take care of each other while taking care of everyone else.”

According to Isaiah Thomas, assistant dean of students and director of REHS and student conduct, the student conduct office is responsible for examining non-academic student misconducts such as smoking in residence halls, weapons on campus and threatening behavior. The office is made up of two staff members — himself as the director of the office, and an assistant director of student conduct. REHS staff also help the student conduct office examine cases of student misconduct.

“Everybody in [REHS] plays a role in the student conduct process. The office of student conduct trains hearing officers — individual staff who can hear and process cases on behalf of the office,” Thomas said. “The majority of all professional-level staff in residential education and housing services are hearing officers.”

Isaiah Thomas, assistant dean of students and director of Residential Education & Housing Services (REHS), at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA . Sept. 17, 2021. Theodore Tang/The Occidental

Thomas said the position of assistant director of student conduct was vacant for three months but was filled by a new recruit who started work Nov. 15.

During the search period Thomas said he and other REHS staff had to process more student misconduct cases than usual. As a result, staff needed to balance the extra work on top of their other job responsibilities. Thomas said everyone did a great job despite the amount of work they were faced with.

With a new assistant director, the student conduct office is fully staffed now, according to Thomas, and REHS also hired two new resident directors over the summer of 2021, who can assist with work in the student conduct office.