SUNY students told coronavirus tracing gigs are unpaid — after applying


You don’t need a college degree to smell a bait-and-switch.

Students at SUNY’s Stony Brook University applied for what they thought were paid positions with the state Health Department as coronavirus contact tracers — only to be told after the fact that the gigs are uncompensated.

“The New York State Department of Health is hiring for paid, remote job roles,” read a posting emailed to science majors at the school earlier this month. “All opportunities listed were created to help in the fight against COVID-19.”

Among the listed positions was contact tracer, the crack detectives that the state is now recruiting in droves to track down previously unidentified coronavirus cases by retracing the steps of known patients.

In fact, Gov. Andrew Cuomo places so much stock in contact tracing that a sufficient number of tracers is one of the seven criteria for a region of the state to be approved for reopening.

In general, the state is paying contact tracers $27 per hour, the DOH has previously said.

But the painstaking labor evidently isn’t so valuable that it’s worth paying college kids for, as several Stony Brook students who applied received an automated email reply indicating that the positions are actually unpaid.

“You applied through Handshake for the NYS Contract Tracer program,” read the email from Marianna Savoca, Stony Brook’s assistant vice president for Career Development and Experiential Education. “The governor’s office is now asking for volunteers ASAP to help the State re-open.”

The flip-flop left cash-strapped students — some of whom are trying to help support their families amid the economic turmoil — feeling betrayed.

“Both my parents have lost their jobs and have not been able to go back to work for several of months,” said one biology major who applied, declining to be identified by name. “I applied to be a contact tracer to not only help the city during this pandemic but also help my family out in our current financial situation.

“I don’t think this is fair to switch from a paid to a volunteer position as many people relied on this job to help pay for bills and essential groceries.”

Added another applicant, “I feel completely shorted by this change. I was under the impression they wanted to give these opportunities to SUNY kids.

“Now, they make it seem like they never wanted to pay us to begin with, which is just wrong,” continued the student, who also declined to be identified. “Under any other circumstances, it would be ridiculous to call people in for a job interview only to ask them to work for free.”

Stony Brook officials responded to a request for comment with a statement that did not directly address the discrepancy.

“Stony Brook University has worked closely with our state and local partners to manage the impact of COVID-19 on our region,” the statement read. “We responded once again last week when our government partners asked us to help to increase the number of tracers in an effort to allow the region to enter Phase 1 reopening.

“In response, we put out the call to students whose internship or capstone projects had been impacted by the pandemic and students who had applied for tracer positions via our career services office.”

“In an effort to assist the county in opening, Stony Brook sought to recruit additional tracers and erred in seeking volunteers,” the school added in a subsequent, separate statement.

SUNY officials did not immediately respond to an inquiry as to whether the discrepancy was limited to Stony Brook, or if students systemwide were being asked to work for free.

The state DOH pinned the misunderstanding squarely on SUNY, and insisted that students interested in being contact tracers could either get cold, hard cash, or be otherwise compensated.

“The State is not recruiting volunteers for our contact tracing program,” said DOH spokesman Gary Holmes.

“There are two options for SUNY students to be contact tracers: They can apply and get paid or SUNY is developing an option for students to receive internship credits for work as a contact tracer,” Holmes clarified. “The State never directed a solicitation for volunteers.”

Additional reporting by Ebony Bowden


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