Student employees are everywhere. Teaching labs, workshops, and recitations; managing the libraries, Wilson Commons, and dining amenities; taking care of your residential hall; setting up and operating technical equipment for any event clubs or pro-staff dream up; assisting your professors with technical difficulties; supervising the gym; cleaning glassware at the Medical Center; providing support in academic departments and advising; maintaining your laptops and Wi-Fi; giving tours for and welcoming future generations of students; and much, much more. Any job here requires a certain amount of training, but not all pay structures (devised in response to perceived skill) are created equal.
The two main forms of compensation for student employment at the University are stipends and hourly wages. If a student is paid via stipend, they receive a fixed amount of money every pay period. This amount is supposed to correspond to fair wages for the estimated number of hours invested into their position during that increment of time.
If a student is paid an hourly wage, they are expected to clock in and out at the beginning and end of each shift. They are paid for precisely the amount of time logged. This does not account for the amount of work accomplished during that time, however. Students employees who have been on the end of either of these pay structures will know that both have flaws that can — and have been, and will continue to be — exploited in different ways.
Firstly, there is something inherently wrong with the criteria for skilled labor. More “skilled,” higher-tier campus jobs are listed as such due to the degree of training required to perform the job correctly. For example: among the few existing TA positions paid hourly, the tier level is usually II, which corresponds to the expectation that successful completion of the course constitutes skill acquired for the position. However, for employees of Event and Classroom Management (ECM), their jobs utilize a much wider range of skill requirements.
ECM workers learn to utilize a variety of equipment in settings all across campus. While some aspects of the job like setting up tables and chairs or carrying speakers might be accessible to any first-shift newbie just starting out, someone who never cabled a sound system in their life would be extremely unlikely to just figure it out, and the same goes for light programming, which requires knowledge of the semantics of its own programming language in addition to understanding what different things you can make lights do in the first place.
ECM shifts can encompass both of these tasks, yet all employees remain at Tier I, the lowest level for hourly compensation. Before the pandemic, employees could hope to be promoted to senior positions with higher wages, but all remaining former “supers” have since had to resign their title. The University appears torn between compensating skill and avoiding conferring high degrees of responsibility to an ever-revolving door of new hires.
But no matter the issues you may have with hourly compensation, at least you know you’re getting paid fairly for your time. With stipends, you receive a set amount of money, no matter how many hours you go over or under your weekly estimate. While ideally over the semester this would average out to the total compensation equalling a fair wage for each of the total hours worked, many departments find themselves unable to offer liveable wages. The stipend model is reminiscent of how graduate students are provided a fixed salary, in exchange for which they must provide teaching assistance in addition to completing their studies. Since this is part of a broader agreement which often includes free tuition, it might be difficult to determine the value of individual labors like teaching.
Many stipend holders are also criminally underpaid. Dividing the total compensation by numbers worked at the end of the semester might amount to $7 per hour — and TAs are considered skilled labor by other University metrics. Most TAs are aware that lower stipends depend on the department’s resources to fund them, meaning that students are eligible for better-paying positions on the basis of their major or the classes they took. And that’s not to speak of departments so underfunded they can only compensate TAs with general academic credit, which counts as credit towards graduation but not as credit towards the completion of a degree in their major. The combined risks of being overworked and underpaid make stipends an unappealing prospect indeed.
Differences across the University’s pay structure do not be absolved so long as they do not include discrepancies. Equal skill should be compensated to the same degree. Equal time investment should result in pay proportional to those hours, with pay corresponding to skill level. There are challenges in assessing skill across such a broad range of fields of employment and positions worked, but all student employees should be able to earn the value of their work.