At Institution of Higher Learning, Student Wages Low

Posted by Alex Hodor-Lee

An online petition is circulating among students, demanding that the College raise its minimum wage standard commensurate with New York State's newly passed minimum wage laws.

Amanda Seres '14, the SGA Senate secretary posted the petition on Change.com and it has since been disseminated through Facebook.

In her petition Seres writes, "Although nonprofitmaking institutions may elect to abide by the New York State minimum wage standards, Skidmore College is a 501(c)(3) nonprofitmaking institution and has elected exemption from coverage under the minimum wage order," continuing "Skidmore College work study students are therefore exempt from the state minimum wage order and may be paid less than the new state minimum wage."

Seres called the College's choice not to pay work-study in line with the newly designed minimum wage legislation "deplorable."

In March 2013, the New York State legislature and Governor Cuomo struck a deal that will see the state's minimum wage increase to $9 by the end of 2015. Seres cites the new legislation as rationale for increasing student work-study wages.

Approximately 18 percent of the Skidmore population is currently earning federal work-study dollars, says Lisa Lessard, who is assistant director of the office of Financial Aid. The Federal Work-Study Program is a mechanism of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and, as such, requires that Colleges pay students in accordance with the federal, not state, minimum wage.

Concomitant with state efforts, a national debate is ensuing with Democratic politicians and the White House in an ongoing attempt to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. However, their initiative is impeded by Republican leaders, who contend such a move would result in large-scale job loss. If the federal minimum wage were raised, it would require Skidmore College and nonprofit institutions across the country to meet the new standard.

Aside from students enrolled in Federal Work-Study, approximately 31 percent of the student population recieve Skidmore work-study dollars-the distinction is that these students (often writing center tutors or professors' or department assistants) are not tied to need-based programs.

"Each year approximately 1,300 students are employed through the Student Employment Program." Lessard says. "Skidmore offers 10 Hourly Pay Levels for students ranging from $7.25, the Federal minimum wage and going up to $10.50."

Nick Masiero, a freshman, buses tables in the dining hall. An entry-level position, not uncommon for freshmen, Masiero makes $8.25-one dollar more than the federal minimum wage.

While that figure seems generous, it doesn't reveal how many students are paid below the current State minimum wage, "Approximately 24% of students earning federal and Skidmore work study dollars are currently at a pay rate less than $8.00 per hour."

"So if you are tutor making $9.00 per hour right now, that may seem like a lot of money because it is significantly higher than [federal minimum wage]." Seres observes. "But in reality, you are making $9 per hour because the college deemed that the skill level required for your job merits pay of $1.75 per hour above the minimum wage, so with the minimum wage raised, all other students deserve raises accordingly."

Though Seres wrote the petition, she has had support from her colleagues in the SGA and issue will likely come to the Senate floor next Monday.

"We on senate started thinking about the issue of minimum wage. I wrote a resolution for support to increase minimum wages. We believed Change.org was the best medium to get students involved and noticed," Senator Britt Dorfman '14, told The Skidmore News.

Seres calls support like Dorfman's "invaluable" because "administrators are much more regularly accessible to [The SGA's Executive Committee] members than with regular students."

Other colleges, similar to Skidmore, have similar student wage structures. Vassar College does not meet New York State's minimum wage standard, minimum wage is $8 per hour (though students cannot earn more beyond the $10 an hour ceiling). Middlebury's minimum wage--effective Jan. 1--is $8.75; their wage ceiling is $10.55. At Swarthmore College, students minimum hourly wage is $8.80, though their student-earning ceiling is $9.44 per hour. At these Colleges the wage ceiling is lower, but the floor is higher.

Since being published on Friday, the petition garnered close to 300 signatures; the end goal is 2,000. (On Wednesday night someone in the Washington, D.C. area anonymously paid to promote the page, boosting it to the front-page Change.com users who have signed a petition related to income inequality or labor/wage issues.)

Many students are dependent on work-study programs and Seres' petition reveals a human element not captured in the very technical debate over raising the College's minimum wage.

"Skidmore's diverse socioeconomic environment includes students who require federal work study as part of their financial aid packages and whose on-campus employment is their primary source of income," continuing, "Some students go days without substantial meals while they wait for their biweekly work study paychecks to arrive."

Those who signed the virtual petition were allowed a space to publicly post their reasons for signing. Many students blasted the College. Some cited their financial hardships, while others invoked legal rationale.

But in signing, one person wrote simply, "The right thing to do."

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