College administration responds to demands of student workers

 Photo by Allyson Huntoon ’19   Student organizers posted the demands of student workers in residence and academic halls around campus.

Photo by Allyson Huntoon ’19

Student organizers posted the demands of student workers in residence and academic halls around campus.

BY MERYL PHAIR ’21

Last month, approximately 170 students worked together to write a list of demands to the administration in hopes of initiating better conditions for student workers on campus. The list of demands included an expectation that the College respond within two weeks and that each demand “be clearly and definitively answered in writing with indication as to whether the College will fulfill it.” After two weeks, if demands were not addressed, students threatened “continuous confrontation, interruption and direct action.” On Oct. 12, Mount Holyoke College responded to each of the demands. They will be addressing each demand in preliminary reports that will be released to student representatives throughout 2019.

The response was issued on behalf of the College’s administration by Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Life Marcella Runell Hall, Executive Director of Human Resources Heidi Friedman, Director of Dining Services Rich Perna, Director of the Career Development Center Liz Lierman and Vice President of Communications and Marketing Charles L. Greene II.

The College’s response opens by saying, “We want to commend you on the way in which you, the student workers, have brought forward your concerns. We greatly appreciate the spirit of open dialogue and cooperation with which this conversation has been engaged.”

The response explains that the College is currently conducting investigations regarding the campus-wide budget process, financial aid and work-study, as well as other financial processes that directly impact student wages. After these investigations, the College will compile a series of reports that will be shared with student representatives for initial recommendations.

“Myself and Chuck Greene, on behalf of the Officers of the College and the Office of the President, will take a lead on writing the reports along with The Student Employment Governance Committee (SEGC) and the Student Employee Advisory Committee (SEAC). The process will include ample student representation,” said Dean Hall.

A primary concern among student workers is their wages. Their demand stated that the minimum wage offered for students should be $1 above Massachusetts state minimum wage, with a 10 percent increase in hourly wages for higher position levels and a 10 percent increase in hourly wages for shifts after 9 p.m. Student workers also demanded compensation for currently unpaid positions such as MoZone, MERT and Orientation Leaders. MERT, for example, requires 32 hours (or four shifts of eight hours) per semester of unpaid active duty.

Student organizers also pushed for greater compensation for Community Advisors (CAs) and Senior Community Advisors (SCAs).

“In the student demands there was a demand for CAs to get free room and board, something that is commonplace at most other colleges,” said student worker Cierson Zambo ’19. “There wasn’t even a mention of CAs in the [administration] response. At Smith [College], CAs and SCAs get paid more than 3 times the amount that CAs get paid here, which is equivalent to room and board for them, and they are doing the same job, with the same hours,” he said.

Partially in response to student demands, the College has begun an initial investigation into wage structures for students. On Oct. 10, Perna, Lierman, Friedman, Hall and two student representatives, Theo Claire ’20 and Adelita Simon ’19, met to discuss the students’ demands.

There are currently 210,000 student hours scheduled for the 2018-2019 academic year. A cursory calculation suggests that mandated increases in Massachusetts minimum wage would lead to a loss of more than 30,000 student work hours if the College’s budget is not increased, according to the College’s response to the demands.

“The College’s budgeting cycle begins in January, is finalized in April and is approved by the trustees the first week of May, so the College’s 2018-2019 budget was completed before [Massachusetts’ legislation to raise the minimum wage] was signed,” said Hall. “In terms of the fiscal year 2019 budget, we have secured resources to support the Jan. 1 minimum wage increase to ensure the existing student work hours are not negatively impacted. In terms of [the] fiscal year 2020, we will be asking the departments to take the minimum wage increase into consideration when submitting their budgets to ensure the student hours remain consistent.”

There will be a town hall meeting held in December 2018 that informs students how campus wages, jobs and budgets are decided. The second part of the administration’s investigation will look at how student jobs have changed over time. In particular, it will address how centralized dining may have created new positions for student workers.

A preliminary policy will be shared with student representatives in May 2019, followed by a final recommendation in the fall of 2019. Student workers expressed a need for the implementation of training and structures of accountability for all employees centered around cultural sensitivity, harassment and violent language. They also argued for greater transparency regarding the handling of concerns and grievances. The administration response said there is “an ongoing commitment of the College to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive community.”

In line with that commitment, the College is developing a plan to train dining staff, with a focus on managers and supervisors. A key point of training will include guidelines on the observance of religious holidays. A final policy recommendation will be given in May 2019. The administration will develop a clear and consistent policy on compensation for early arrival, which applies to any student who is required to come back early to perform their duties for a student employee position, like Orientation Leaders.

In regards to the grievance process, the College stated, “There may be a need to simplify the approach for students to report issues of harassment, safety concerns and other job grievances.” The current avenues for students to make claims or seek advice in such cases are grievance procedures (found on the College website), community insensitivity forms, the Honor Code Council or the Ombuds Office located in Safford Hall.

In response to complaints of a lack of transparency in hiring processes, this past year, staff supervisors were informed that hiring must be timed in a way that allows students with financial need and workstudy awards to apply for positions. Rules requiring first-year students with workstudy to work in dining were eliminated.

The administration is also conducting research to understand how and which students are hired for certain jobs across campus in order to increase transparency. Student workers demand that they should comprise at least half of SEAC, and their voice should be responded to and taken seriously.

“SEAC is charged with oversight and governance of student employment on campus and will investigate existing practices and policies. The current members of this Committee are Marcella Runell Hall, Jon Western, Kathy Blaisdell, Judith Dyjach, Heidi Friedman, Liz Lierman, Robin Randall and Robert Roll,” said Hall. “The SEAC will support the process through providing background, context, perspective and recommendations from these stakeholders to inform the investigation and the revisions that result.”

In response to these demands, there will be increased student representation on the SEAC. The administration will propose a structure that increases student representation while including representation from different groups (dining, administrative, student support, etc.).

“The response from the [administration] did not address all of the concerns from the student demands and they didn’t actually commit to changing most of the things on the list of demands,” said Zambo. “Every timeline put out was ‘we will start investigating this and you will hear about it in May.’”

“Student workers are continuing to organize, share our stories and find common ground. Over 250 student workers are currently involved, and we welcome additional interest and involvement,” said Claire. Claire emphasized that the administration’s response does not mean an end to the student workers’ movement.

“We have adopted the slogan ‘Powered by Student Workers,’ emphasizing that Mount Holyoke depends on student labor. We expect to continue engaging in dialogue and action until our needs are met.”

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