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.