Vassar Leftist Union calls for $15 minimum wage for student employees

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News.

In recent years, battles over student workers’ compensation have become all too familiar to much of the Vassar community. Now, the Vassar Leftist Union is organizing a campaign to raise Vassar’s minimum wage for student workers to $15 per hour. 

These battles can be traced back to the creation of the 2016-2017 State Budget, when Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a statewide plan to incrementally raise the minimum wage in New York State to $15 per hour. This plan included varying schedules for different parts of the state. But while New York City (NYC) has already reached the $15 hourly goal, other parts of the state, including Dutchess County, have yet to meet that mark.

Vassar has been playing a game of catch-up with this incremental plan. In 2019, after facing criticism for paying student employees a $10 per hour wage, the College raised the student minimum per hour wage to $11.80 in order to meet the local minimum. That $10 wage had been below the local minimum wage since the end of 2017. Moreover, Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann conceded that under the $10 wage, only 9.8 percent of students were meeting their student employment (work study) award amount.

Now, since the local minimum wage was raised to an hourly rate of $12.50 at the end of 2020, the College has again found itself paying student employees below minimum wage. Last week, the student organization the Vassar Leftist Union released a petition demanding that the College immediately rectify this.

Leftist Union President Joe Mangan ’23 noted that the organization began examining student wages after finding that student workers were not being awarded hazard pay during the pandemic. Mangan said they eventually realized that the lack of hazard pay was just one part of the larger problem of Vassar repeatedly paying student employees under minimum wage. Unlike Vassar, other local institutions such as Bard College and SUNY New Paltz have already begun compensating student workers at the current hourly minimum. 

Writing on behalf of the College, Associate Vice President for Communications Gladwyn Lopez explained that “Vassar’s minimum wage adjustments are aligned with the school year, not the calendar year. We raised the hourly rate last year to $11.80 to match the state wage increase that went into effect that January and we will raise it again this year, July 1, to reflect the recent state minimum wage increase.”

But the Leftist Union’s petition goes farther than asking for the current minimum—they’re demanding the coveted $15 per hour wage.

Aaron Greenstein ’24, who serves as the organization’s treasurer, emphasized that paying student workers $15 hourly would be a valuable opportunity to set a local model. This opportunity to step up and set a progressive standard, Greenstein explained, is especially important given that the state’s regionalized plan to achieve a $15 minimum wage doesn’t actually lay out a clear timeline for reaching that goal in parts of the state outside of NYC and Long Island. 

The petition’s organizers noted that the primary concern they have heard from student workers—who informed the petition—is a persistent inability to meet student employment award allotments. “The allotment will not change, but [$15 per hour] will just make it easier to reach that allotment,” Mangan explained. Sydney Leidig ’22, a Research Assistant in the Political Science Department, echoed the concern that the current wage rate does not reasonably allow for work study allotments to be met. “Many jobs do not offer enough hours to make the full amount, and I am not even sure if it’s possible to make the full amount while working the maximum hours allowed,” she said.

However, Lopez cautioned that due to the limited amount of allocated Work-Study funds, any increase in hourly wages would result in a reduction in the number of hours that students can work.

Given this understanding that a wage increase would lead to a decrease in available hours, Leidig noted the importance of considering options beyond just a wage increase if the primary goal is to make it feasible to meet work study allotments. “I wonder if a stipend program would be more equitable,” she reflected. “The amount of work study we’re supposed to make is factored into our financial aid awards, so I don’t understand why they can’t just give everyone that money through a stipend.”

Mangan emphasized that any effort to increase equity in student compensation speaks to the nature of broader power relations between administrators and students. “I don’t see how administrators can say that we have shared governance of the college,” they lamented, citing student-led lobbies for divestment and a COVID-related no-fail policy as evidence that the administration often ignores proposals with major student support. Greenstein agreed with Mangan’s point, and questioned whether the administration’s support of student needs is hollow. “I feel that it is entirely contingent on people holding them accountable,” he said. “And if students don’t do that, they’ll just never improve things.”.

The Vassar Leftist Union’s petition states that: “We believe that an immediate raise for Vassar’s student workers is necessary, possible, and deserved in light of the pandemic-related risks many student workers have faced in recent months.” As of May 6, it’s garnered 270 signatures.

Lopez insisted that “At this time, the wages reflect the significant flexibility that most student jobs afford – much more than other entry-level, part-time or full-time positions on campus,” while also clarifying that there is no current plan to institute a $15 student minimum wage.

Both the petition and Mangan acknowledged the College’s assertion that the student wage rate will be raised to meet the current minimum of $12.50 by July 1. Still, they say this is too little, too late. “They’re doing that about a year behind schedule. They continue to do things behind schedule. It’s not even the bare minimum; they’re behind the bare minimum,” Mangan said, before adding that the pandemic demonstrated the necessity of many Vassar student workers—especially those at the post office and college store at the time when students couldn’t leave campus for other services. “I think a lot of workers are going to have strong feelings and will probably be ready to fight back,” they insisted.

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