Wage issues plague ASWC

by Sarah McCarthy

Students working for ASWC in paid positions may see a change in that system soon.

“The presumption is this—that if you’re paying them anything you’re paying them minimum wage,” said Walter Froese, Whitman College controller. Due to this presumption and its legal implications, ASWC may have to significantly change how it compensates students for their work in future semesters.

Currently, students who work for ASWC, including all nominated officials, the Pioneer staff and employees of KWCW, are paid by stipends, the amounts of which are determined by the responsibilities of their particular job.

The trouble? Most, if not all, of these stipends would fall below the Washington state minimum wage requirement ($7.63/hour) if students were actually paid that much for every hour they work.

When this discrepancy was brought to the business office’s attention, Froese consulted an attorney to see whether or not it was acceptable to continue to pay students in stipend amounts. The attorney advised him that while it might be appropriate to have a few of the top elected officials within ASWC, it would not work to have every employee paid in this way.

“If an auditor came in and we claimed that everyone was a nominated official, it would just look like we were skirting the minimum wage requirement. We don’t want to do that. Any business done under ASWC is under Whitman’s tax ID number. Whitman is responsible if there’s a problem.”

In short, while it may be okay to say that certain ASWC officials are like a board of directors and don’t need to be paid by the hour, it is a violation to pay every single employee this way.

Ajay Abraham, the financial chair of ASWC, has been working with the business office to come up with solutions to the problem. Simply increasing the pay wages enough so that the salaries are in compliance with minimum wage requirements would be an extremely difficult thing to do this year since, Abraham explained, ASWC has already drawn up its budget for the year and has not accounted for that extra money. The Pioneer especially has a large staff of writers and editors, and to pay them all minimum wage would exponentially increase the Pioneer’s use of the ASWC’s newspaper budget. In this case, there would not be money left over to even print the paper.

While there is a possibility of paying the elected officials stipends and the others by the hour, that too is problematic. “From an ASWC perspective, the issue is that we view elected positions as on par with many positions that we don’t elect,” said Abraham. Thus, it would become difficult to draw a clear line between who was in enough of a leadership position to be paid by stipend and who was not.

Though ASWC positions will continue to be paid by a stipend this semester, several ideas have been discussed for how it might change next semester and in following years.

“Simply having people opt out of the minimum wage requirement isn’t an option,” Froese said. “Imagine the pressure that employees could put on their workers to just ‘opt out’ if it was legal to do so.” If no ASWC positions received money, this likewise would be in compliance with standards, since they would then be explicitly volunteer positions.

Another more difficult option is to put a cap on the number of hours ASWC employees could work and pay them for that number of hours. There was agreement at a Pioneer staff meeting, however, that “there would be about two pages of a paper” if that was put into practice. Some other possibilities were discussed, including perhaps making the Pioneer a credit class, paying on a by-the-story basis and giving students financial aid rather than a paycheck. None of these options have been finalized as the perfect option for years to come.

There has been a specific ruling from the courts about the pay wages of people like RAs and SAs, thus taking them outside the minimum wage requirement. It is far less clear, however, for college newspapers and other student positions. As Froese said, “It isn’t clear. There just isn’t a bright line standard yet.”

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