The Minimum Wage Debate

Posted by The Editorial Board

New York recently voted to raise the minimum wage to $8; the bill puts the state on track to eventually reach a $9 minimum wage by the beginning of 2016. Nonprofit organizations are not required to abide by the new legislation and Skidmore College chose not to update its wages for work-study students on campus. In response, Senate Secretary Amanda Seres '14 and Vice President of Diversity Affairs Britt Dorfman '14 started a petition several weeks ago, seeking 2,000 student signatures to formally request that the Board of Trustees raise the student worker wage.

The Editorial Board hopes that this issue will captivate the student body because of its socioeconomic implications for students. It is a complex and multifaceted issue that deserves consideration and informed discussion. The Editorial Board has put together the beginnings of a comprehensive discussion, with an argument for both sides.

Skidmore's Student Handbook implies that work-study employees cannot work more than 10 hours per week (see page 17). Assuming most student employees abide by that directive, at the current minimum wage, $7.25, a biweekly paycheck comes to $145. With the wage increase, the paycheck would go up to $160, an extra $15 every two weeks that could cover essential groceries (milk, bread, eggs), a night downtown or tickets to the Big Show.

Having to live on what students are suggested to make every week is hard. This newspaper regularly hears stories of students who rely on their paycheck to pay their living costs (groceries, books, gas money) and struggle to make ends meet at the end of each pay period. The College's job is to provide an environment where students can learn and explore; students must be able to meet their basic needs before being expected to devote attention to their studies or extra-curricular activities. New York State raised the minimum wage after determining that $7.25 per hour was not a livable wage. It is the College's responsibility to help set its students up for success; this means increasing the wage scale at Skidmore. Denying student workers the raise to a livable wage especially targets low-income students and students without extra monetary support.

This decision is not in accord with the egalitarian views and actions of the school. In recent years, Skidmore has made strides towards creating a constructive environment for discussions around class. It aims to be a school accessible to everyone regardless of socioeconomic class. The Classless Society exhibit, the relatively strong financial aid program, the unique Opportunity Program, and the number of professors who receive institutional funding to research social class and mobility in the U.S. are all examples of the school's active decisions to support economic diversity on campus. To refuse students this wage improvement is a direct contradiction of the example the school has set in recent years.

The minimum wage was raised because the current wage is not a livable wage. Students deserve the opportunity to work to provide themselves with a comfortable lifestyle while in school. There is an innate contradiction in being an institution that promises excellent financial aid but refuses to pay a solid living wage to its students. To maintain integrity in its community relations, the College must increase its wage scale for work-study students.

If nothing else, it is objectionable that the College did not go out of its way to inform students about its plans with regard to the new legislature. Even if the school were not planning to adopt a new wage scale, a school-wide email providing students with the school's argument for retaining the current wage scale would have been informative and possibly tempered the student reaction. The lack of communication comes off as the administration trying to sweep the concern under the rug, a tactic that has never worked well for the school in the past.

There is, however, a strong argument for the school to retain its current wage scale. The College has no legal, financial or moral obligation to provide students with an opportunity to work for their living expenses. By this argument, Skidmore wages are not designed to be a living wage nor does the school have any obligation to provide them as such. The College primarily enrolls full-time students, so the expectation cannot be for a student to also hold down a full-time job to pay the bills.

The demand for increased wages is problematic from an economic point of view. The money for increased wages has to come from somewhere: either tuition and other price increases or other projects and handouts such as need-based tuition wavers. The money to pay for higher student wages may come from higher coffee prices at Burgess or sandwich prices at the Spa. Or it may mean a delay in the renovation and construction of facilities and housing. The former is undoubtedly unacceptable to students, the latter to the school.

Skidmore, to remain competitive, must completely undertake new projects to attract prospective students, and with an admittedly small endowment, they cannot simply conjure up the funds to pay higher wages. In the end, all costs will fall on the students. What is more, this is not the only cost students are currently demanding of the College. It was just last month that the College conceded to look into divestment from portfolios that include carbon-emitting corporations, an unsavory but profitable investment. The College simply cannot afford to continuously pick up costs at the demand of students and keep up with the projects required to stay in business.  

At Skidmore, 50% of students (about 1200 students) are work-study students and 25% of that 50% (roughly 300) are currently paid the College's minimum wage ($7.25). Raising the wage scale for students means offering more money to a small percentage of the student body. Retaining the current wage scale means keeping the variety of benefits that the student body gets now. It is a question of whether the increase in wages is worth the cost.

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