BranVan student workers fired amid campus transportation change
On August 21st, student workers were notified through Slack that they had lost their jobs following the hiring of a new ground transportation service. The Justice spoke with former employees on their frustrations with administrational communication.
Brandeis’ shuttle service, colloquially referred to as the BranVan, has seen its fair share of modifications following last November’s devastating shuttle crash. Joseph’s Transportation is out, replaced by DPV Transportation, a New England ground transportation service. The student-run campus and Waltham shuttles, however, saw an even more drastic change at the beginning of the semester: they are no longer running. As a result, nearly all the shuttle service’s student employees — a reported total of 40 drivers, coordinators and supervisors, according to chief of Public Safety Matthew Rushton — found themselves out of a job.
On Aug. 21, 10 days before the start of the fall semester, student BranVan employees received a cryptic message in a 72-member Slack group chat from Rushton. The message, described as “ominous” by a student member of the channel, notified the students of the termination of student-run BranVan services.
“Dear BranVan Drivers,” the message read. “I’m writing to update you all on the last communication that went out related to transportation. As we enter the 2023 fall semester, all driver services will be handled by DPV. With expanded service on weekends and holidays, this is the best way to ensure the safety of our students and improve reliability.”
Rushton’s message went on to state that a new position, with “expanded hours,” had been created; students could now apply to work as a “student parking and information attendant” at the main gate booth at the entrance to campus. The message included a link to a Workday application. Former BranVan employees would get priority.
The message was received, but there were crickets in the Slack. “There was silence,” Allison Weiner ’25 said about the message, explaining that “a bunch of people had Slack off this summer” and they themselves didn’t see the message when it was sent.
“I mean, what do you say to that?” an anonymous former BranVan driver said of the message.
On Aug. 26, Sam Richards ‘24, a former BranVan driver who described feeling “confused,” tried to clarify the message. “I’d like to be clear: you’re saying there are no jobs for student drivers this year, as they are being filled by dpv [DPV] employees, but instead, Brandeis students can either apply to be parking attendants, or AT [Accessible Transportation] drivers?” he wrote in the groupchat. “Is that correct?”
Rushton did not respond, but Joshua Joseph ’23, the Head of Events of Accessible Transportation, did. “Correct,” he said. Joseph said he was not available for comment prior to the publishing of this article.
DPV, the new provider, was announced July 22nd in a Campus Operations email sent to the school body. However, nothing in the email suggested job insecurity for the dozens of student BranVan drivers.
“Over the past several months, we conducted a formal process to select a new transportation provider to operate the Brandeis shuttle service,” the email read. “We are finalizing an arrangement with DPV, a well-known regional operator that currently provides transportation services to other universities … DPV will join us at Brandeis in mid-August. At that time, we will follow up with another email to the community on what to expect with the new service.”
On Aug. 17th, Pedro Estrada, the former head of operations for brandeis’s Escort Safety Services Shuttle, sent a message into the BranVan Slack group chat that Richards described as the first time he sensed there might be “insecurity in the job.”
“In the coming weeks, ESS will be undergoing some restructuring. Please don’t worry; this is a positive step towards optimizing our operations and ensuring we can serve the community even more effectively,” Estrada wrote. “The coming messages will not be delivered through me.” Estrada could not be reached for comment.
“I think through July and August, they knew ESS was no longer a service students were going to be working for,” said Richards of the message. Richards also speculated that the final message announcing the layoffs had to go through Rushton as the chief of public safety, and therefore Joseph and Estrada — both students at Brandeis at the time — weren’t able to be direct. Richards also highlighted that Joseph had helped him get a new job as a driver for Accessible Transportation (AT), which still uses student drivers.
“There were a lot of students and student drivers who didn’t fulfill their responsibilities last year over both semesters last year … one out of every three shifts, maybe four, somebody wasn’t there when they should have been,” said Richards of BranVan. But, he said, he strongly disagreed with the handling of the situation. “Was it fair and equitably executed to fire all these students in the way that it was? I don’t think so.”
Work-study, on the rocks
Allison Arazi ‘24 had been driving BranVan since the fall of her Freshman year. “BranVan was one of the few jobs on campus that could still function despite the pandemic, and I loved it,” she said in a Sept. 10 text correspondence with the Justice. “I really enjoy driving, so a weekend in the BranVan was surprisingly restful. I’d often have a friend sitting in the passenger seat with me, or I’d curate playlists to listen to.”
Now, Arazi works for accessible transportation, but her hours were severely cut. “In order to make up for the hours I’ve lost, I’ve been looking for employment on campus and off campus,” she said. “It’s been difficult, especially at this time of year when everyone is also looking for employment.”
Hannah Murphy ‘26 began driving at the end of January 2023. Like Arazi, they also now work doing AT. “I had to reapply for the job and am now doing both the booth job and driving AT. It was really frustrating that they did not communicate what was going on until a week before the semester started, especially because I got work-study this year because of my position as a BranVan driver,” she said.
“It felt like the only ones looking out for student drivers were other student drivers,” Arazi said. “We were dropped into silence, without word from administration or Public Safety til the last second.”
Allison Weiner began driving for the Branvan in September of their sophomore year. They drove the campus route, never having arranged to be trained to drive the Waltham route. It wasn’t “cool” or “fun,” they said, but it was a job. For regular weekday shifts, they earned $15 an hour, and graveyard shifts — driving late at night — went up to $17.50 per hour.
Like Arazi, Weiner is looking for another campus job, but the search is proving difficult. “I am very confident in saying most of the other BranVan drivers, if not all of them, receive federal work-study,” Weiner said in a Sep. 3 Zoom interview with the Justice. “[The layoffs were] really frustrating as students that are, in quite simplified terms, federally mandated to have a job if we need them.”
Having to scramble for a new job — most of the application deadlines were on August 20, one day before BranVan employees were notified of their termination — is a “horrible situation to be in,” they added.
Campus employment opportunities raise accessibility questions
There are a variety of employment opportunities at the University, but in their efforts to find a new position, Weiner started to notice a pattern. Some positions, such as language tutoring, require a specific skill set that many students do not possess. Weiner and another anonymous student shared with the Justice that students struggle to obtain lab research positions if you don’t already know the professors that are hiring.
Working for the shuttle program was by no means perfect. Drivers already had a hard time getting shifts. The system was “difficult,” according to an anonymous employee, and after their experience and sudden layoff, Weiner has sworn never to work for Public Safety again — but they still believe that the opportunities that Public Safety provided for student employment were quite broad. A license is the base requirement for driving the shuttle, other than the typical interview and hiring process, but students without licenses were able to coordinate and supervise. “There’s not really a replacement for it,” the anonymous former BranVan employee said.
Only a handful of students were kept in employment. Those who drove for the accessibility vans, known on campus as AT vans, were told they would continue doing so, but one student, who is remaining anonymous as of September 3, isn’t positive that their employment is assured, and without a car, they have no other options if they can’t continue with AT. And even if they can, they’ll get “paid a lot less” from now on, according to that same student.
According to Public Safety, a few students will “support a to-be-hired transportation manager with route monitoring this year,” as written in a September 7 email correspondence with the Justice, and both parking attendants and a data scientist intern have also been hired. The positions will total “at least 76 hours of work” per week.
Weiner is trying to get a job at Phoneathon, one of the University’s fundraising efforts, through a friend, but nothing is confirmed. “It’s the only egg in the basket right now,” they said. If that falls through, they’ll have no choice but to look for an off-campus job.
A better choice for “better service”
While the student employees were not notified until Aug. 21, the decision to terminate the student-run shuttle service had been in the works for a while. In a Sep. 7 email correspondence with the Justice, Rushton, who sent out the August Slack message about the layoffs, said that the “decision to change BranVan services was driven by priorities for safety, reliability, and reducing our carbon footprint.” The changes were made following the results from a campus transportation study that was conducted from August 2022 to January 2023, and Public Safety is “confident they will result in better service for the Brandeis community.”
Citing the aforementioned study, Rushton explained that several shuttle routes were found to be “redundant” with other routes, and 3 vehicles were removed from the road after “merging these services.” This, he said, will reduce the University’s carbon footprint. Furthermore, he wrote that BranVan services “chronically faced issues of minor accidents'' and drivers often failed to sign up for shifts. Instead, the University is now hiring professional drivers and are including GPS tracking on a new app, Tripshot, in the hopes that these changes “will better ensure safety and reliability” of campus shuttles.
It felt to Weiner that the lack of a proper warning to student employees was a deliberate decision. “It was very evident that this was a decision that they were intimately aware was going to happen when they sent out the ominous email in July,” they said. “They don’t even acknowledge that this might be a hardship.”
The anonynmous former student driver elaborated further: “The part that we’re mad about is that they clearly do not respect us, do not care about us whatsoever. Every part of this has been another slap to the face besides being laid off.”
Rushton wrote in his email that “student drivers are typically notified in the spring semester about whether they will be invited to continue driving in the next school year,” specifying that no students were told last Spring that their employment would be continued. He also expressed Public Safety’s sincere hope “that every student who was hoping to drive for us this year finds a new work opportunity on campus.”
“There are so few jobs that are just as accessible and employ as many people [as BranVan],” Weiner said. “Phoneathon is similar, but to my knowledge they don't have nearly as many employees. Nowhere else on campus employs that many people at once.”