WA Stipends Run Afoul of Federal Law

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

For years, Writing Associates [WAs] and Student Academic Mentors [SAMs] have been paid bi-semesterly stipends. Until very recently, however, few involved in the program realized that stipends violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, the centerpiece of Federal labor law.

The law is intended to protect workers. Fannie Weiss Professor of Law Ellen Dannin, of the Pennsylvania State Dickinson School of Law, told the Gazette that the law assumes “when it comes to wages, people are so desperate for jobs that they’ll do almost anything,” and this is particularly true for students. The Act is intended to set a wage floor–because otherwise, job competition could send wages spiraling downwards. The law’s provisions, then, require hourly and timely pay–in other words, nearly every student job needs to be paid strictly by the hour and pay must be distributed every two weeks. And in theory, the penalties could be severe. Willful violation of the Act could result in a 10,000 dollar fine and six-months in prison.

These requirements were the subject of a memo which circulated in 2000, according to Melanie Young, the Vice President for Human Resources. However, it is not quite clear who is actually responsible for enforcing these regulations for student jobs. Young, for example, is insulated from student jobs by both individual employers and the Student Employment Office.

“The student payroll is a difficult thing to get your arms around,” Young admitted. “There are lots of jobs that come and go … it would be really surprising if it ran like clockwork all the time.”

If there were a labor audit and inspectors came to Swarthmore, though, Young could be held accountable for the irregularities. But she is not too worried. “We have the same goals the law has,” she explained. “It is clear that any variation is a mistake. We want to pay students for the time they work.”

When asked bluntly if the College could get into legal trouble, she admitted she wasn’t absolutely sure, but “probably not. [Labor auditors] look to see if you are cheating students.” Young had a new copy of the Fair Labor Standards Act sitting on her desk, and she explained that she had been rereading it to fully understand every possible exemption and detail.

In this specific case, the discrepancies came to Human Resource’s attention in response to a complaint by a Writing Associate. “The WA was originally concerned about how frequently [WAs were] paid,” said a WA, speaking on the condition of anonymity, due to the sensitive nature of the complaint. The Fair Labor Standards Act provides legal protections to whistleblowers.

“Nothing illegal happened,” said Young. Still, the school is moving very rapidly to comply with the letter of the law. The anonymous Writing Associate raised the issue less than a month ago, and the entire pay structure for WAs and SAMs had already changed. Next year, WAs and SAMSs will have to keep close track of their hours, and submit time slips on a bi-weekly basis. This change has many concerned.

The Gazette spoke to ten Writing Associates, and all but one of the Associates expressed serious concerns about the changes the pay system. Because of the sensitive nature of the discussion, the Gazette agreed to grant several of the Associates anonymity.

Generally, the WAs are concerned that the move to a strict per-hour pay system will result in lower pay and will dis-incentivize going the extra mile. “I hate the changes to the pay system,” said one Associate, explaining that “[the Associate] will feel less a sense of obligation to be as helpful as possible since many things take only a few minutes, therefore are too difficult to try and fill out on a timesheet.” Another WA expressed concern that the change could make the program more business-like. “It takes away some of the ‘I do it because I love it’ feeling, which makes me a little sad and upset,” the WA wrote in an email.

For recent years, WAs received a ‘stipend’ of 80-hours worth of work each semester. However, while Associates are assigned to a course every semester, they only are expected to have hours in the Writing Center every other semester. This could make it difficult to actually do 80 hours of work every single semester.

Molly Weston ’10, a WA, estimated that she spends roughly twenty hours per paper assigned in the courses for which she is a Course WA. This adds up to 40-60 hours of work per semester. Writing Center shifts add an additional, approximately, 30 hours of work each semester. It could be difficult for her to actually work eighty hours as a WA during semester she isn’t assigned to the Writing Center.

Weston’s experience was mirrored by the other Associates we interview, with time estimates ranging from 40 to 100 hours every semester.

One WA was strongly supportive of the changes, because the Associates feels a regular bi-weekly pay schedule is important, could help WAs better juggle multiple jobs, and there would be a “more structured correspondence with how we are paid.” The Associate explained that there are several alternative opportunities available for WAs who need to work more hours. “One can apply to work as a coordinator, as a WA Mentor, a receptionist, a mentor for WAs-In-Training and can help set up workshops and other opportunities throughout the semester,” said the Associate.

Several WAs who were apprehensive about the changes appreciated that a strict hourly system could help ensure that WAs do a more even amount of work.

Jill Gladstein, the Director of the Writing Center, is trying to find a way to balance the demands of the Federal regulations with the needs of students. She inherited the current pay system, and never realized that it might be legally questionable. The 2000 memo, for example, was distributed before Gladstein came to the College. Still, she believes that a stipend system would, ideally, be best for Writing Associates. “People are hired more for the job than for the actual number of hours,” she told a Gazette reporter.

Because she realizes that many Associates do not log one-hundred-sixty hours over the course of an academic year, Gladstein is working on a proposal to create a new higher pay tier. “Was have this specialized training, they should be paid to represent that training.” Her goal is to ensure that “there won’t be much of a change in the amount of pay,” she said.

The current Swarthmore pay-scale is fairly narrow range, the Gazette found in an investigation last semester. Yale University offers a top pay scale of $13.30, Stanford offers $16.30, and the University of Texas pays a top wage of $14.00, for example.

The decision to revise student pay tiers would not go through the Human Resources office, but Young warned that such a change could have much broader implications. “A lot of people would have to be involved in that discussion,” she said. But still, “[it’s] certainly one sort of option that anyone could propose at any time.” Ultimately, the decision would be made by the Student Employment Office Directors.

Even if Gladstein moves forward aggressively on this plan to create a higher pay tier, Associates next year will be stuck with the current top by of $8.80. Laura Talbot, the Director of Financial Aid, wrote that “budget decisions have been set and no higher hourly wage is possible in 2008-09.”

It is also unclear how these changes will effect other stipend-based positions on campus. Dean Garikai Campbell, whose office oversees the SAM program, emailed the Gazette, writing that his office has yet to work out the details of the transition to an hourly-pay system. The Gazette’s small stipends have also run afoul of the law–if a position is paid, technically it needs to be paid for every hour clocked. Using the lowest pay tier, then, a paid reporter for the Gazette would only be expected to work 20 hours in a semester, under the regulations set forth by the FLSA. In reality, most reporters work 50 or more hours each semester.

Young plans to use the changes in the stipend system to kick off a new campaign to make sure College employers are following the law. “The system needs a tune-up,” she explained. If a student had not raised the issue, however, it seems unlikely these changes would have occurred in the near future. Young had not planned to run an awareness campaign until this controversy arose.

Correction: Following the publication of this article, the Gazette was contacted by a WA involved in the changes. This WA clarified that the changes had actually been the works for nearly a semester, with the changes first being discussed in November of 2007. The policy change was only officially announced on April 15th. That Gazette apologizes for this inaccuracy.


  1. My only problem with the pay that we receive is that it is low compared to SAMs. Although approx 400 dollars more per year, SAMs – and I have many SAM friends who readily acknowledge this – do much, much less work. Further, in my opinion – feel free to disagree – the work that is done by SAMs requires less skill.

  2. I do it because I love it? Um, I’m sorry, but it’s a job. And if by business, you mean efficient, professional, and always striving to meet student demand, then I have no problem with that. And what does Gladstein mean by “People are hired more for the job than for the actual number of hours”? Actually, if one WA works 40 hours, and another works 100, shouldn’t they be paid different amounts? It just seems fair.

  3. RAs are also paid a semesterly stipend, which is a combination of a discount on room payments and a semesterly check. The check comes through claiming one hour worked at the full stipend amount per hour (meaning the reported hourly wage is massive, although with only one reported work hour). Does this require change under the FLSA as well?

    -Joseph Borkowski 2008, RA, Dana LL

  4. The pay scale seriously needs to be revised and expanded. Right now there’s about $1/hour difference between top and bottom pay scale, and hardly any job is paid the middle or bottom pay scale. I know that this is meant to provide equality of access for students on financial aid to jobs that pay the top rate, but we have to recognize that some jobs require a lot of work. Next year WAs will be getting paid the same amount as people at the circulation desk of McCabe when in reality being a WA is much more difficult than that job. They should be paid to reflect that difference. I know of many WAs that are thinking of not being WAs next year because of the drop in pay they’re going to receive next year when they could be making the same amount of money by working in a library and doing they’re homework for a large portion of the time.

  5. what about other positions with stipends, like working for the phoenix or the halcyon? i got paid about $28 for a semester of work for the phoenix.

  6. The current pay scale has a spread of 58 cents from top to bottom ($7.98–$8.56), so Mark’s “about $1/hour” characterization is actually fairly generous.

    As for the RA issue, I know that the law makes special exemptions for administrative and supervisory roles, which are a fairly unique aspect of the RA position. I think there might be a salary floor for activating those exemptions, though, so the administration should still look at that issue. In any event, I can’t imagine putting RAs on an hourly compensation schedule. It just wouldn’t be practical at all.

    Regardless of the fate of any particular job’s compensation scheme, it’s clear there are a number of stipend-based positions on campus for Melanie Young’s awareness campaign to re-evaluate. Speaking of which, exactly when does she plan to conduct this awareness campaign?

  7. But there are plenty of internships that pay either no money or give a small stipend. Does anyone understand how that’s any different? Couldn’t you just call it an internship or something?

  8. Here’s what the Dept. of Labor has to say about FLSA:


    Lucas and Peter: As best I understand it – and I am not a lawyer, etc. – the executive/administrative/professional exemption can only apply for salaries above $455 per week. The “Subminimum Wage Provisions” might apply to RAs, but it’s not clear: the linked fact sheet doesn’t follow up on the summary’s mention of students at “institutions of higher education”. Also, some internships of the kind Peter describes may be with firms that do not meet the definition of “enterprises having workers engaged in interstate commerce”, in which case FLSA doesn’t apply at all. Further, volunteers do not count as employees.

    All of that said, I suspect Melanie Young is right. The law is vague, the regulations are vague, and enforcement is in the hands of government inspectors. Maybe DOL could crack down hard on the College – in fact, DOL can probably cause headaches for any employer at whim – but it certainly doesn’t have to. Since there’s no reason of principle or of politics to do so, I doubt that it will in this case.

  9. As a SAM and in response to how much work a SAM actually does, I think it’s different on an individual basis. It’s a 24/7 job. Yes, they can shirk off all of their responsibilities and spend no time at all at this job and as a result, he or she may not be rehired the next year as all SAMs are evaluated for rehire. So the amount of time and amount of skill required can vary depending on the dorm, the group of students, and the amount of effort taken. To say that being a SAM requires less skill is insulting. I’m surprised that comment is on this site.
    I love the WA program and recommend it to many other students and use it myself, but I know there are certain WAs to avoid because they aren’t very good at their job and I know that WAs can agree with me on that point.
    I personally think that being paid by the hour for SAMs just doesn’t make sense. How do you distinguish time spent with a student for academic help versus just being a good friend? There are a lot of gray areas that shouldn’t have to be divided.
    As for publications- aren’t Phoenix staff self-paid? I suppose this would only apply to the yearbook.
    Yes, students tend to work more hours than hours actually clocked. Isn’t that true for most jobs outside of campus as well?
    and psst- while we’re on to campus job reforms…any chance of raising the hourly wage? I also had a campus job and feel like there should be a broader pay scale…game room vs. gardening vs. circulation desks vs. ITS etc…

  10. SAM—I think I can answer some of your questions.

    1) SAMs do not require an entire course just to do the job, and (as I understand it) the training is significantly less burdensome compared to the WA program.

    2) While it is true that many jobs make sense for stipend-based pay, it is illegal. Every student job (except for RAs) needs to be hourly.

    3) This change will apply to The Phoenix—all the money goes through the College, unless a publication decides to be incorporated separately, which can lead to complications with taxes etc.

    4) You might not have read far down in the story—Jill Gladstein is developing a proposal to add a higher pay tier.

  11. Adding one higher pay tier isn’t a significant fix, unless it’s much higher. The quasi-official rate for morning shuttle drivers, for instance, is something like $16/hour. My understanding is that similar figures can be found all around campus in jobs that are both skilled and unpleasant. If the college preserves the internal wage caps, and successfully reins in all the dodgy maneuvers to circumvent them, we’ll simply see labor shortages. The supply of student labor is somewhat elastic, and no amount of institutional denial can stay the invisible hand.

    Miles: you suggest that paying RAs by stipend is not illegal. This may be the case, but I can’t find anything in the DOL guide that clearly addresses the point. What’s your reasoning/evidence?

  12. Miles,

    To respond to your concerns, pay the WAs for their training time (and the SAMs for theirs).
    Some WAs shirk, especially before the 2006-2007 academic year when the previous coordinator was replaced by Tracey Rush. WAs have individual bi-weekly meeting with Tracey, and some WAs work more hours than they are paid for by their stipend.

    A lot of the work SAMs do is behind the scenes. Students who are struggling academically may be less forthcoming about the time they’ve spent working with a SAM than those who receive help from WAs because WAs are utilized by a broader swath of the academic spectrum.

  13. As a former WA, I can see how this can be problematic. The WA job is so much different than most other jobs on campus. An additional problem that I don’t think I have seen raised above is that when some WAs have their most busy weeks (WAing papers and conferencing with students for the course WA program and working in the writing center), there may be weeks in which you are technically working more than the maximum allowed in one week.

    As far as the Gazette and Phoenix go, these are not traditional jobs. The Gazette in particular has not paid anyone until recently (I’m not sure if the change was made this or last school year). These publications blur the line between job and extracurricular activity for the paid positions. You could state that the paid position is for 20 hours of work in the semester and that any additional work for the Gazette is time put in as an extracurricular activity. You would then be clear in what is involved in the paid position, and I don’t think that anyone would have a problem with people not getting paid for an extracurricular activity.

  14. David — I was aware of the $455/week figure as well, but hadn’t done enough reading to know at all whether a different standard was available for student workers. I’ve since done a bit more reading and haven’t found any indication that there’s a separate standard, so I think you’re right on this issue. But, according to my reading, the subminimum wage provisions definitely don’t apply for anyone at Swarthmore — they don’t allow for stipend-based provisions, but instead permit employers to apply for a special certificate that allows them to pay a specific individual hourly wages below the federal minimum rate.

    Publications like the Halcyon, Phoenix and Daily Gazette continue to be interesting cases. My vague understanding is that these groups often don’t really see their positions as jobs in the traditional sense, but as extracurricular activities that happen to receive and distribute advertising revenues. (Of course, such a self-conception may not always match reality — but I digress, since publication funding is a separate issue.) It’ll be interesting to see how these groups choose to resolve such legal issues: in many cases, it may be easiest to stop compensating the contributors working on such publications.

    Responding to the quote from Laura Talbot in the main article: even if “budget decisions have been set,” why does that prevent the establishment of a special WA/SAM pay rate for hours worked? The only answers I can think of are that the budget isn’t providing as much money for the WA and SAM programs anymore, or that she doesn’t believe that they’ll end up paying for less hours than the current stipends compensate students for. I, for one, would like to know which is true.

    Similarly, I’d like to know what (if anything) the 2000 memo said about programs like the RAs and WAs. For example, if Gladstein inherited the current WA compensation system when she came to Swarthmore in 2001, it seems likely that the same system was in place when the memo was issued — which means that Gladstein’s predecessor should have evaluated the program much like Gladstein sees it now. I similarly suspect that RAs were being paid with a room stipend system back in 2000, which raises similar questions about that program (if we assume their stipends are also illegal).

    Like others, I don’t believe the Department of Labor is likely to be heavy-handed in enforcing these statutes on the College. Even so, I think the College should still provide its community with a fuller explanation of their previous actions with respect to these federal laws.

  15. While a few jobs on campus (WAs, SAMs, RAs) really do have stipends, a lot more have stipend-like pay systems. Most student managers receive payment for some number of weekly hours. In their job descriptions they say something like:

    “Top pay rate available for 12 hrs/week for Director April 7, 2008 to April
    6, 2009.”

    The students in these jobs are expected and instructed to work as much as needed and fill in timesheets with hours that add up to the amount they were hired for.

    If this is legal, couldn’t WAs switch to this? If not, do we need to change these positions too?

    Known positions operating this way:
    * Paces Director
    * Social Affairs Committee Co-Directors
    * Large Scale Event Coordinator
    * Olde Club Facilities Director
    * Olde Club Technical Director
    * Van Coordinator
    * ITS Lab Manager, Dorm Consultant Manager, Public Area Manager
    * Party Associate Coordinator
    * Paces Coordinator
    * Rattech Director
    * SBC Director

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