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Student-run businesses support employees, plan ahead amid uncertain times


Illustration by Chloe Xu

By Henry Baring     4/7/20 9:06pm

Shut down for the remainder of the semester, student-run businesses are facing challenges filling the financial and emotional gap left by COVID-19. Questions hover for Coffeehouse, The Hoot and Rice Bikes, as well as student-owned East-West Tea and student-staffed Willy’s Pub, as to how they will support their student employees, deal with disrupted income and plan ahead.

Coffeehouse manager Brendan Wong said that since closing on March 8, Coffeehouse has been working to assess and fulfill their employees’ needs. 

“We wanted to make sure that students would still have access to pay,” Wong said. “Because pay is very significant in a lot of people’s lives.”

Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman’s March 16 email discussed criteria for pay continuation for student employees. The email, sent to all undergraduates, stated that work-study students would receive payment on April 3 totaling their estimated earnings for the rest of the semester, which are based on average earnings during the first eight weeks of semester. Non-work-study students, however, could only earn money for remote work or in the case of financial hardship upon approval from Gorman.

Coffeehouse, The Hoot and Rice Bikes all receive support from the university for work-study students. While the lump-sum compensation for work-study students comes from the university, wages for non-work-study students doing remote work come out of each business’s budget.

According to Wong, a junior at Jones College, Coffeehouse will pay several of its employees for remote work such as creating art to display in Coffeehouse, writing superlatives for the outgoing seniors and learning how to make Dalgona coffee, a popular social media trend.

Magdah Omer, a Baker College sophomore, said she was at first anxious about paying for her living expenses without the income from working at Coffeehouse. Omer said she continues to receive payment for contributing remotely to Espresso Yourself, Coffeehouse’s weekly student art and performance event.

“[Doing remote work for pay] brings a little more stability and reassurance to my life given such a hectic time,” Omer said.

At The Hoot, manager Christian Owens said they were assessing the financial situations of their employees and whether The Hoot is able to finance remote work.

“The administration is looking into providing support as best as they can if there’s significant demand,” Owens said.

Rice Bikes manager Graham Curtis said many of their work-study employees have already received their estimated earnings from the university. Curtis, a Hanszen junior, said that Rice Bikes is working to provide resources to their employees who did not yet receive the payment or were not eligible. 

“Outside of the work-study lump sums, we're working with all of our employees to gauge individual financial needs such that we can best address them,” Curtis said.

However, employees of East-West Tea, which is entirely owned by students, will not receive any financial support from the university, according to manager Judy Liu. 

“Our payroll entirely depends on our income from retail nights, servery orders or catering orders,” Liu, a Lovett College junior, said. “As such, [the] campus closure effectively shuts down our business.”

Students who work at Willy’s Pub will also not receive any financial support from either the university or their owner Valhalla and Willy’s Permits, according to Pub manager Emily Duffus. Pub, which had already closed for the semester following a Feb. 28 incident, cannot receive funding from the university because of their external ownership. However, Pub employees are able to request support from Gorman due to financial hardship, Duffus said.

“From what we have heard from the administration, their plans to allow us to reopen next semester have not changed,” Duffus, a McMurtry junior, said.

Liu added that despite East-West’s business being on pause, behind-the-scenes work will continue. 

“Our managers will continue to meet virtually and take advantage of this excess time to plan for an even grander opening,” Liu said.

At Rice Bikes, Curtis said that while social distancing, many of their employees still bike for leisure and share rides with each other on the social fitness app Strava. Owens said while The Hoot is closed, they are working on a new online ordering system for next fall.

Coffeehouse, The Hoot and Rice Bikes will all hire new employees in the fall and do not expect changes in the hiring process, according to each of their respective managers. Coffeehouse usually opens in the summer shortly after commencement, but Wong said they are entertaining possibilities of opening later in the summer depending on how the pandemic unfolds.

While waiting to reopen, Owens said he felt sad about losing The Hoot’s social scene.

“It stings, especially to lose the seniors just so abruptly,” Owens, a Martel junior, said. “I really enjoy working at the Hoot, and getting to go there and hang out and bother employees.”

Wong said one reason he first started working at Coffeehouse was to meet new people, which he misses right now.

“Selfishly, I wish I could be steaming milk,” Wong said. “And just chatting, and seeing the community at large.”

[4/8/20 2:20 a.m.] The story was updated with a quote from Omer. 

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