Reality for a residence don

Three dons talk about the pitfalls and perks of the job

Dons are voicing concerns over balancing the responsibilities of being a student and  the growing demands of being a Don.

The Residence Dons at Queen’s University play a vital role in the residence experience of many first-year students. While many have rewarding and engaging experiences as a Don, some deem the job exploitative and, at times, unnecessary.  

To understand more about their job at Queen’s, The Journal spoke to former and current Residence Dons about their experiences in the position. Due to the non-disclosure agreement they sign with Residence Life (ResLife) — the administrative organization that oversees the residence system — all respondents have had their names changed to protect their identity.

Through interviews, past articles and looking at how other Dons are treated across the province, there’s a common narrative to having these jobs. 

Despite several positive experiences, these workers lack some of the protections offered in other forms of student employment.

Looking back on his time in residence, Finn said his positive experience was often overcome by the stresses of being a Don. Overall, he said his time was an isolating experience. 

“You don’t really have space to invite friends over to just hang out,” he told The Journal.  

In addition to this, Finn said the requirements of the job were greater than he expected. 

“There were a lot of programming requirements and meetings that are expected, as well as daytime on-call shifts that are expected during ‘party’ weekends that aren’t really in the given job description,” he said. 

Finn also had some bad experiences with residents he felt were inadequately handled by ResLife. 

He remembers one situation in which a student stole $1,500 from his roommate while he was asleep. According to Finn, “ResLife did nothing to make the situation better.”

He was allowed to stay in the room for another three months until another complaint prompted ResLife to move him to West Campus. 

During his time as a Don, Jesse similarily found that while he enjoyed his work for the most part, having the job took a toll on him. 

“We only got one weekend off per month where we were not expected to be in the building at night,” he said.

While Jesse stressed most of the extra work wasn’t a big deal, he said there was tension amongst Dons and ResLife regarding a new requirement that at least one Don had to be on-call during the exam period.  

Before the change, ResLife Coordinators were responsible for being on-call during exams so as to allow Dons the chance to study. The move away from this was viewed as an unnecessary increase in workload that interfered with school work. 

“That new requirement was not the expectation of Dons who had [the job] before and Residence Life Coordinators could just as easily keep the pager with them,” he said. “It felt like RLCs were off-loading their work on us, while we were already stressed about exams.”

In his own experience, Kurt said his favourite part of the job was the fellow Dons he worked with and the students on his floor. Even with this in mind, he still remembers how the ResLife management team treated Dons poorly. 

“They often seemed to be exploiting Dons as easy, cheap labour,” he said. “If you add up all of the hours of work Dons actually do, it goes way beyond our compensation.” 

While the Queen’s Residence Don contract from 2015-2016 doesn’t specify a set amount of hours for the job, the responses The Journal received regarding the amount of time for the job varied significantly. According to Kurt, Finn and Jesse, it depended on the residence. 

From his experience, Kurt said a lot of the work Dons end up doing is generally unnecessary. At one point during his term, ResLife suspected the fire alarm system in the building wasn’t working. As a result, Dons were made to do ‘fire rounds,’ wherein they patrolled the building for hours in case there was a fire. He said these additional responsibilities made it challenging to balance student responsibilities with being a Don.  

While these challenges are frustrating for all, he said it’s particularly hard on students who are dependent on donning to be able to afford tuition and living expenses at Queen’s. 

“It’s most exploitative for those Dons who are donning out of necessity and can’t protest no matter how much extra work they have to do,” he said.

To address the issue of exploitation, there have been attempts in the past to unionize Dons, but those have fallen flat. According to Kurt, the problem is that partaking in this process could damage their chances of getting rehired. For some Dons, not getting rehired means not having a place to live, or food to eat.  

“Dons have this awkward position of not technically being salaried employees and our employer doesn’t have to follow labour laws, even though we are employees in most senses of the word,” he said.

Kurt isn’t the first person to take issue with the labour rights of Dons. 

In a 2013 Journal article, Residence Dons considered unionizing due to increased workload, programming and responsibilities not initially outlined. 

This decision stemmed from these students being given a two-week notice that they were expected to be on-call 24/7 during exams — a role that had previously been the responsibility of the ResLife Coordinators. 

“We can’t complain because then we will get fired, and for many of us financially it’s just not an option to live anywhere other than Res,” one don told The Journal in 2013. 

These fears were affirmed in a response by former ResLife employee Rashed Al-Haque, published in The Journal

In January of 2013, he wrote that he had “seen Dons who challenged upper administration in the slightest way being placed on what seems like a proverbial ResLife ‘watchlist’. ResLife seems to watch out for people who question them and assess whether they should continue in their jobs.” Al-Haque stressed the need for Dons to be able to speak up about their frustrations. He pointed out that it’s not in the best interest of ResLife to have disgruntled staff who feel “marginalized by the very institution they chose to serve.”

It’s not just Queen’s Dons who have taken issue. According to a 2014 Maclean’s article, two Carleton Residence fellows — the equivalent to Dons at Queen’s — quit their jobs after a failed bid to unionize. 

While Carleton maintained that Residence Fellows only work an average of 20-25 hours a week, Miranda Moores told Maclean’s the job required more like 40 to 60 hours a week. 

On top of the heavy workload, the Carleton Residence Fellows contract, much like the one Queen’s Residence Dons sign, includes the right of managers to assign non-specific ‘other duties’.  

Despite a lack of official representation at ResLife, ResSoc represents all students who live in residence including Dons. Their executive sits on many committees that deal with issues affecting Dons and advocate on their behalf.    

Dons have complained that dependence for shelter and food on their employment has put them in a vulnerable position. However, in an email to The Journal, ResLife emphasized that a live-in position shouldn’t be a barrier to Dons approaching ResLife with any concerns regarding their work and that they want to “want to support all Dons as they perform their very important role in student life."


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