Wage increase brings allotment stagnation

Courtesy of Student Employment

During spring 2019, student workers rejoiced at the news that they could expect a raise. In a statement given to The Miscellany News, administrators indicated at the time that, although raising student wages presented budgetary concerns, they were committed to finding the necessary funds to bring the wage from 10 dollars per hour up to the state minimum of $11.10.

On Aug 27, a campus-wide email from Student Employment stalled celebrations. Titled “Wage increase reminder,” the email included a table with “guidelines” indicating that our hours per week would decrease. 

The College bases its wage and earnings math on 15 available work weeks per semester. The discerning eye and quick mathematical mind might notice a discrepancy between the number of suggested hours listed and the hours needed in order to reach the earnings allotment. Sticking with the 15 week assumption, a first-year working seven hours per week would earn $1,165.50 per semester or $2,331 per year, coming up $69 shy of the earnings allotment. They would need to work 7.25 hours each week to get their allotment, or an additional 3.75 hours over the course of the semester. This discrepancy is largest for first-years, but each class year shows such a gap. Sophomores have a gap of $36 dollars. Upperclassmen, just three dollars. 

While even the discrepancy for first-years may seem negligible to an institution with a budget as large as Vassar’s, this amount could translate to a class’s worth of books. For sophomores, a semester’s worth of laundry (assuming that, unlike us, you do laundry every week). For upperclassmen like us, eh, not so much. But we like to look out for the little guy. 

Armed with basic arithmetic skills, we brought our findings to the College. To our qualms, they replied: “The average hours listed in the Student Employment Office memo are in fact averages, and not caps on a number of hours students can work.” And further, with particular relevance to the plight of first-years seeking employment without immediate success, “[If] a student does not solidify a job until the second or third week of the semester, they can work more hours in the weeks following to make up the difference.” 

But the language of “average” suggests that, for example, if a first-year worked six hours one week and eight hours the next over the course of the semester, since the average hours listed aren’t a cap, they would reach their allotment with an average hours per week of seven. In fact the “average” provided by the College is incorrect: that first-year is actually alloted an “average” of 7.25 hours a week, which would require working above the hour suggestion every single week. In other words, while the College has suggested an average number of hours per week, one that will not get you the allotment provided in your financial aid letter, the actual average that you SHOULD work to meet your allotment is higher. In this way, the suggested hours provided by Student Employment are misguiding.

Further, not all campus employers are apprised of the need for students to work beyond the suggested hours. The College stated, “Hours worked per week are flexible and always have been.” However, as students whose jobs are scheduled consistently each week are aware, employers are unlikely to schedule beyond the listed “averages.” Others have received emails warning employers of the possibility an employee will exceed their allotment, and not be paid for their work. These deter employees from being able to work hours that the College promised us in our financial aid package..

The College’s math to calculate earnings relies on an even more problematic premise: that student workers have 15 available work weeks. The issue here is that partial weeks on the academic calendar, such as those before and after breaks, are considered in the College’s math as full weeks wherein a student can work the suggested number of hours (or more than that, the average number of hours they need to reach their allotment). Furthermore, it necessitates that students work over finals week, when students’ normal hours are often interrupted by exam periods. Nevermind the need to study. In fact, the number of actual workable days in the fall semester adds up to 99, which is just over 14 weeks. That’s an automatic loss of anywhere from 80 dollars (for a first-year) to 100 dollars (for an upperclassman). Students whose typical hours fall on weekends experience even fewer eligible work days as a result of the timing of breaks. This math also assumes that students will stay on campus to work over Thanksgiving break in the fall semester, even though many on-campus jobs are closed during that academic holiday.

Since several work weeks are interrupted by the onset of breaks (the weeks before October, Thanksgiving, winter, and spring breaks), student workers would either have to stack their hours in advance or work incredibly long shifts over those shortened weeks. Many campus jobs are not conducive to long shifts or multiple students working onsite simultaneously, making such shift gymnastics pretty much impossible. 

One might think a student could elect to stay over breaks and work to make up the gap (or complete a shortened week of work interrupted by the onset of a break), but even those students whose employer remains open during breaks require students to obtain special permission from Student Employment to stay on campus and work. Even if it were possible to work over academic recesses, we believe students should not be prohibited from celebrating holidays or visiting family members because they have financial needs that otherwise would be unmet.

In short, we have a better wage which means our individual hours count for more, but we have not gained on any of the issues which originally led to the call for higher wages. The numbers off which the College calculates our average hours per week are not realistic; it assumes we can get that best case scenario, working our average hours each week including over breaks and finals. But the reality is much sloppier and more complex.

Since the College didn’t provide clear-cut directions for how students can meet their financial needs, we will. 

Students, if you are to meet your allotment, here’s what you need to do. First-years, forget that seven hour suggestion. Add around a half hour to your schedule each week, or work an average of seven hours a week with one weirdly busy 10 hour and 45 minute work week thrown in. Sophomores, if you work an average of eight hours a week, you need to add 1.65 working hours before your semester ends. Do that. Upperclassmen, you’re like six minutes short. Suck it up. 

You can also try to work around breaks and finals by stacking your hours in advance. 

Employers, you’re allowed to let your student employees work beyond the suggested hours Student Employment provided you. It’s a suggestion. If you schedule us for that exact number of hours each week, we’re out of money. If someone gives you a hard time, send them our way.

In case you’re hesitant to merely take our word for it, The College even wrote us, “Students can adjust their hours from week to week as needs arise and schedules fluctuate. For example, if a student works an event one week and they ultimately end up working 12 hours for that week, they can work fewer hours the following week (with employer approval).”

Administrators: Asking students to advocate for themselves—to know to work above the suggestion given to them, to go beyond the schedule their employers provided—to reach their work-study allotment is an additional barrier to low-income students, and puts them at even more of a disadvantage compared to their wealthier classmates.  The College should be committed to ensuring that every student has the information they need to get the funds that, by Vassar’s own calculations, they need in order to attend this institution. If Vassar truly intends to live up to its language of “meeting 100% of demonstrated need,” then it should provide the information and tools for its students to do so. 

The College wrote, “Students need to be mindful that their primary goal while at Vassar is their success as a student.” In our view, being a successful student depends on our ability to purchase books, study over finals week and, we don’t know, maybe have a clean shirt every now and again. 

We need more than a higher number of dollars per hour.

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