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Beloit College’s outdated pay-scale practice blocks student organizations from paying employees equitable wages

Editor’s Note: Mustafa Quadir is an executive member of the Buccaneer Boathouse, but is not speaking for the organization.

This piece originally appeared in the Oct. 7 edition of The Round Table.

This fall, the Buccaneer Boathouse entered its 4th semester of operation, and with it brought daily open-boating hours, an accessible dock, and a team of trained student-employees ready to introduce you to the Rock River. Committed to bringing positive change to the college community, the Boathouse embarked on another mission – equitable wages for its student employees. Despite the availability of funds, Human Resources (HR) cited a decade-old college pay-scale practice, and wage-equity to bar the Boathouse from paying its employees more than fifty cents over the minimum wage. 

The opportunity to hire our first staff was an exciting challenge. On one hand, a team of student employees meant the Boathouse would become a sustainable operation, not solely relying on the gracious volunteers that helped it get started. On the other hand, we recognized that our applicants faced structural barriers like outdoor experience, seasonal-only employment, and access to transportation, which made them think twice about applying to work at the Boathouse. So, we replaced requirements of outdoor experience with rigorous training, and incorporated wages starting at $8.25/hour in our annual budget, later approved by the Clubs and Organization Oversight (COO) committee.

I believe this starting wage values the work our staff does at the Boathouse, while being in line with living expenses at the college. Over the past decade, the cost of living on campus (room + blue meal plan) has increased 37% to a staggering $9,360 for the 2019-2020 academic year (32 weeks), while the student pay-scale has stagnated at $7.25 in the same time frame, only expanding up to 50 cents higher for certain positions. Regardless of experience or skills, and despite the college’s dependence on student-work for smooth operation, students can not earn more than $7.75/hour during the academic year. The commonly cited exception to the rule is nude modeling, which pays $12/hour. 

While the college awards generous financial aid packages to students to offset the cost of tuition, an extremely limited number of students receive enough aid to pay for living on campus. Compounding the financial impact on students and their families is the requirement of on-campus housing and a meal plan for the first three years of their Beloit education. 

However, it seems that none of these practical reasons went far enough to bring the Boathouse’s ambitions to reality. In a conversation with Lori Rhead, Vice President for HR & Operations, I learned about the policies and procedures that ensure wage equity across departments and within comparable colleges: Because the $8.25/hour wage did not fall within the college’s pay scale for students, it would be inequitable for the Boathouse to implement that wage. Furthermore, in the big picture of the college’s financial constraints, pay raises for students would be unfair given the pay-freezes for current staff and faculty.

Although the reality of our current financial environment is undeniable, it does not excuse the decade of wage-stagnation for student employees. While admitting the invaluable labor that students provide to the college, it is unjust to restrict the pay-scale in a way that does not allow a higher wage for paraprofessional, highly skilled students. Moreover, to create a “pay scale” that only expands 50 cents, and then use it as an excuse to ensure equity, seems antithetical to the purpose of pay-equity itself. The college’s commitment to student success is undebatable, but the lack of creative problem solving around student wages to mitigate the cost of mandatory campus housing and meals falls short of the way I have witnessed stakeholders navigate complex problems in my three years here. As the Powerhouse opens and transitions to relying on student labor for smooth operations, and the cost of living on campus increases once again for the 20-21 academic year, increasing and expanding the student pay scale would be an equitable measure that relieves students of some financial burden. This would also maintain the dignity for the hundreds of student employees who recruit prospective students, clean our spaces, work in food service, organize our stock rooms, build sets, stitch costumes, and so much more.

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