[Disclaimer: The author of this article wrote the Opinions articles referenced and was present at the meetings in which these changes were negotiated.]
Over the past few months, Vassar has received serious criticism from students and alumni regarding its practice of paying students below New York State minimum wage. In response, starting this summer, the College will raise the wage from the current amount of $10 per hour to meet the state minimum of $11.10 per hour. These changes were ushered in by an Opinions article published in The Miscellany News on Jan. 30, 2019, titled “Vassar still refuses to pay students NY minimum wage,” which criticized the College’s wage policy and expanded the dialogue around these concerns.
The article raised questions about student ability to reach financial aid allotments and flexibility to work off campus. Quickly garnering widespread attention, the article was shared 492 times on Facebook, prompting alumni to scrutinize the policy. An alum, identified as “Ginnie Kozak 1969,” commented on the Misc webpage, “Has the college responded to this yet? It really concerns me and is beginning to influence my thinking about Vassar, especially as my class approaches its 50th Reunion” (The Miscellany News, “Vassar still refuses to pay students NY minimum wage,” 01.30.2019).
With extensive dialogue and debate surrounding the wage issue, Emmett O’Malley ’19 [Full Disclosure: O’Malley is a Columnist for the Misc] emailed President Bradley directly about the article, requesting a meeting to discuss it in further detail. On March 6, President Bradley, Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana, Vice President of Finance Bryan Swarthout, Vice President of Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll and Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann met with student representative O’Malley and writer of the article Kimberly Nguyen ’19 to address student concerns and locate possible solutions.
Raising the wage to meet state minimum was a financial challenge. According to Bradley, the increase would take an unplanned $300,000 hit to the budget, but the College was willing to locate the funds. During the meeting, the student representatives broached additional issues regarding student employment, such as weekly hour caps. These caps are in place to prevent students from exceeding their work-study allotments. Due to the rigidity of the hour caps, student-workers frequently found it difficult to reach their work-study allotments, and a vast majority of students were not meeting their allotments (The Miscellany News, “Vassar still refuses to pay students NY minimum wage,” 01.30.2019). Begemann provided in an emailed statement following the meeting, “[T]he % of students that currently meet their student employment award amount … it turns out to be closer to 10% (9.8% to be precise).” Begemann clarified that the weekly hour caps were not a rigid rule but a suggested average hour limit. She committed to communicating better to employers the flexibility of hour caps to help eliminate any confusion surrounding them.
At the end of the meeting, the team of administrators vowed to find the $300,000 in the budget to make the wage hike possible. After a few weeks of careful deliberation on the part of the senior administrators who attended the meeting, the College is now prepared to raise the student wage to meet state minimum for the next two years. On March 20, the College released the following statement to The Miscellany News:
Vassar has a long-standing practice of aligning student workers’ pay with the state-minimum wage, however, with recent changes in the New York State minimum wage has fallen behind in recent years. In nine of the past eleven years the student wage has been at the New York State minimum wage, a position we will return to this summer, when Vassar students will be paid the current state minimum wage of $11.10 per hour.
When the New York State rate rises again for pay periods in 2020 and 2021, Vassar is committed to increasing the wages for student workers accordingly (Note: Because of the way Vassar’s fiscal year is configured, increases in the minimum wage for student workers will be effective at the start of summer employment this year and each of the next two years.)
Student employment is an important part of many financial aid packages, and allows students to gain valuable experience while staying on campus. We also believe strongly that students are an important part of the Vassar workforce, and contribute much to our overall employee culture. For all of these reasons we are pleased that we are able to bring our wages back in line with New York State.
Students staying on campus to work during the summer will be the first to see the increases in their paychecks, followed by returnees in the fall. While the changed policy is a victory for student workers, O’Malley continues to be apprehensive. He stated, “Although pleased with the administration’s swift response to explicit student concern, I remain skeptical of the institution’s ability to align its professed commitment to diversity and inclusion with its student-life practices and policies.” It remains to be seen whether the College will continue to meet the state minimum wage as it gradually escalates to $15 per hour. Despite this, students hope these new wage increases will ease their financial burdens over the next coming years.