On Dec. 31, 2017, the minimum wage for all non-exempt hourly workers in New York State—barring New York City, Long Island and Westchester County—went up to $10.40 per hour (New York State Department of Labor, “Minimum Wage”). This increase, according to the state government’s website, is part of a plan to increase the minimum wage annually “until the rate reaches $15” (New York State, “New York State’s Minimum Wage”) (New York State Department of Labor). However, Vassar students continue to receive paychecks of only $10 per hour.
According to the New York Department of Labor’s website, there is a exemption from minimum wage regulations specifically for students at non-profit institutions. Their website states, “Students working in a non-profit-making institution are exempt from Minimum Wage regulations if that institution is set up and operates strictly for charitable, educational or religious purposes” (New State Department of Labor, “Division of Labor Standards”). Therefore, Vassar is legally exempt from paying student-workers the state minimum wage.
To understand why this is unfair to students, we must first delve into the complexity of minimum wage regulations and understand how federal work study works. First of all, there is a difference between the federal and state minimum wage. The federal minimum wage for the United States is $7.25 per hour (United States Department of Labor, “Minimum Wage”). This means that all hourly, non-exempt workers in the United States, regardless of where they live, are entitled to at least $7.25 per hour. And if you’re on federal work study, you’re guaranteed at least $7.25 per hour as the federal minimum wage.
However, states are free to set their own minimum wages based upon each state’s needs or cost of living as long as the state minimum wage doesn’t fall below that of the fed. When that happens, all employers in that state are expected to comply with their state’s minimum wage. However, this provision, which specifically exempts students at non-profit institutions, excludes students from minimum wage increases, thus guaranteeing them only the federal minimum wage. Anything above that federal minimum wage is a courtesy.
It is important to keep in mind that schools that are eligible to distribute federal work study are also receiving grants from which they pay their students. According to the Department of Education’s website, “the Department allocates funds based on the institution’s previous funding level and the aggregate need of eligible students in attendance in the prior year” (U.S. Department of Education, “Federal Work-Study (FWS) Program, 04.17.2014”). However, the website also indicates that schools are usually required to pay a 50 percent share in the students’ wages, so most student wages are not fully funded. Regardless, Vassar is using government grants to pay their students. They should, therefore, pay students the state minimum wage, like all the other employers in this state.
I looked into several of our peer institutions to see whether or not they were taking advantage of this exemption and also paying their students below the state minimum wage. Our immediate neighbor, Marist, a college less than five miles away, pays their students the full state minimum wage, while Vassar does not (Marist College, “College Work Study/College Employment,” 2018). Marist, though also exempt from paying their students the state minimum wage, actively chooses to keep up with the state minimum wage.
While the difference in the wages seems minuscule right now—let’s be honest, an extra forty cents an hour is not a whole lot—it is important to keep in mind that the state does plan to keep increasing the wage until all of New York is at $15 per hour. Thus, in a few years, if Vassar chooses not to increase student wages to match the state minimum, our wages could remain stagnant at $10 while the rest of the state goes up to $15. Of course, when that happens, students could always choose to work off campus, where employers are required to pay them the state minimum wage. With limited access to cars or reliable transportation, however, that may not be an option for a lot of students.
Worse still, it’s no secret that our tuition isn’t going down. Each year, it goes up, as does the amount of student loans that students are taking out. In the 2015–2016 academic year, tuition alone was $51,300 (Financial Aid Letter, 03.26.2015). This academic year, the tuition is $55,210 (Financial Aid Letter, 06.08.2017). These figures do not even account for increases in room and board charges. Keeping our wages stagnant while the state minimum wage and cost of attendance increases does nothing to ease our financial situation as college students. It also bears mentioning that if, for whatever reason, students decided that they couldn’t afford to work at a lower wage with capped hours and the College had to hire outside people to replace them, Vassar would have to pay the workers they hire minimum wage for the exact same job that they would have paid a student less to do (Vassar Admissions, “Campus Employment”).
Therefore, despite the legality of paying a student less than a non-student for the same labor, Vassar must keep up with the state minimum wage. The Administration uses government funds to pay students, and as the cost of going to Vassar continues to rise, they should help to offset that by paying us a corresponding wage. The law currently in place allows Vassar to exploit students as a cheaper labor source of labor than non-students. That is plainly unfair to us. Call and email the Office of Student Employment and urge them to pay you your fair due today.