Student workers reduce hours to avoid reaching earnings cap

Yuri Lee (junior), right, and Marc Kawada (junior), left, talk about how pay cap impacts their college employment and learning experience at Norris Hall of Chemistry in Occidental College. Feb. 20, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

In July 2018, student workers were recommended to work no more than 10 hours per week in their on-campus jobs for the 2018–2019 academic year, according to Ida Buffone, talent acquisition manager for human resources (HR). HR’s student worker guidelines state that this limitation is in place to make sure student workers do not exceed the student earnings cap of $3,500 per year under LA’s new minimum wage of $13.25 per hour. According to professor Julie Prebel, director of the writing center and programs and professor Linda Lasater, director of the Academic Mastery Program (AMP), some of the student workers they supervise have had to decrease their weekly hours as a result.

According to Gina Becerril, director of financial aid, the earnings cap applies to all student workers (including those at The Occidental), though students with work-study grants sometimes have lower earnings caps due to factors such as external scholarships. Becerril said the federal government provides only a small amount — around 10 percent — of funds for work study. The rest of student employment money comes from the college itself.

“The Budget Office who handles all budgets offered to provide the 13% increase to student employment cap of $3100 (thus $3100 to $3500) because of the sudden minimum wage increase. This is not guaranteed every year. The Budget Office re-evaluates each year before the start of each academic year,” Becerril said via email.

The minimum wage in Los Angeles will reach $15 an hour by July 1, 2020. The first increase as a part of this initiative was made in July 2017 and raised the minimum wage from $10.50 to $12 an hour, with incremental increases of $1.25 and $1 per year taking place since. The Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) has been working to adapt to the increased wages while minimizing the student fee.

In the 2017–2018 school year, during which there was a $12 minimum wage, a student working 15 hours a week for 15 weeks of a semester could make $5,400 per year.This schedule would result in a student earning 74.2 percent above the annual pay cap of $3,100. In the 2018–2019 school year, with a minimum wage of $13.25, a 10-hour-per-week limit brings the maximum income to $3,975 annually, 13.5 percent above the new $3,500 pay cap. According to Lasater, under the current pay cap, students can work only 8 hours a week with a minimum wage of $14.25. Without an increased cap, a student working maximum hours will earn $3,420 annually, 2.3% under the $3,500 pay cap.

Prebel, who currently employs 24 students in the Writing Center as writing advisers, shift supervisors and writing fellows, has worked with students to manage their hours.

“I’ve had to cut by 50 percent the hours of at least three of those people [writing advisers]. And I say at least three because I have got a couple of more students — we’re still kind of looking at the numbers — and we’re trying to figure out, ‘How can I keep you on staff?’” Prebel said. “I mean, I’m concerned. I want to be able to provide the services the Occidental student community needs.”

Cordelia Horch (first year) practices on worksheets at an AMP Chemistry 120 workshop at Norris Hall of Chemistry in Occidental College. Feb. 19, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

In the past, three writing advisers have worked each shift, but due to the limitation on hours, now only two writing advisers work some shifts, according to Zoe Foster-La Du (senior). She said this year on some busy nights in the Writing Center there have been long waits and occasionally some students have been turned away because there wasn’t enough staff to help everyone. According to Foster-La Du, limiting her hours to avoid reaching the earnings cap has been stressful since she relies on her on-campus jobs for tuition payment and spending money.

“I feel like Occidental College — as an institution — they should make it a lot easier for low-income students to be able to work and make money and be able to thrive on campus, because it’s really difficult and challenging to navigate this space as a low-income student with a lot of people who don’t understand what it’s like to not have financial support while going here. It’s challenging in a lot of ways materially, but also emotionally and academically,” Foster-La Du said. “Even getting that small amount is a little bit of security and makes my life a little easier as a low-income student here, and that just feels like the bare minimum that the school should be doing for me.”

Reilly Torres (senior) works as a writing adviser, shift supervisor and writing fellow. She said in past years, student workers were able to work 12–15 hours per week and that she worked over the earnings cap without any problems. In February, she was given an extension to her earnings cap for the rest of the academic year.

“It’s kind of impossible if I want to do both jobs to the best of my ability to be able to do them within the earnings cap,” Torres said. “It’s just a hard situation to be honest because HR obviously has no power over the minimum wage being raised and so the college is kind of in this tough situation of, ‘How do we let students work all these jobs that they normally would when we have these financial constraints.’ So I get there’s no easy way to handle it, but I do think there’s a fair way to handle it.”

Despite the cap increase, Lasater said in December she found out 11 of the 16 AMP facilitatorsshe employs were in danger of reaching their earnings cap before the end of the academic year. Most of these students have multiple on-campus jobs, according to Lasater.

“That’s a problem because they are trained in the position and it’s not like I can hire somebody else to take over for them, and if I don’t have the facilitators, the program stops,” Lasater said. “There’s a pool of students who are qualified to be [teaching assistants] and that’s the same pool of students who are qualified to be AMP facilitators.”

Yuri Lee (junior) is an AMP facilitator, chemistry teaching assistant (TA) and Green Bean supervisor. As an international student, she relies on her on-campus jobs for income. She said that she and many of her fellow Green Bean supervisors were close to reaching the cap by the beginning of this semester. According to Lee, the supervisors collectively emailed their managers, who then met with HR and successfully got extensions for the supervisor’s earnings caps.

“It wasn’t a definite amount. I don’t think we know how many more hours we’re allowed to work, but for now, they said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Lee said.

The earnings cap has also impacted residential advisers (RAs) such as McKenna Sims (sophomore), who also works as an AMP facilitator. She said that about half of the RAs were in danger of reaching their caps and that she has reached out to HR for an extension but hasn’t received a response. Sims also said she values her jobs a lot and that next year she might have to choose between them.

“I agree that you should put being a student first, but I also think that it should be more up to the student what they can handle,” Sims said.

Marc Kawada (junior), AMP facilitator, chemistry TA and Scientific Scholars Achievement Program (SSAP) tutor, said he normally would work over 10 hours a week, sometimes even 20, if it weren’t for the cap.

“Maybe jobs that help students academically might be allowed to earn more. I’m not sure if that’s something that they would consider,” Kawada said. “I feel like this is such an important program that I liked to use when I was using it for education purposes.”

Professor Caro Brighouse, associate dean for student academic affairs, said tutoring jobs can be beneficial for both the students being tutored and the student workers.

“I see them as a key support for our student success for all of our students at [Occidental],” Brighouse said. “I think it’s really important that they’re not exploited, so we can’t ask them to do more hours than they can be paid for within the cap.”

Associate Dean for Student Academic Affairs and professor of Cognitive Science and philosophy Caro Brighouse discusses the impact of the pay cap on different academic programs at Occidental College. Feb. 21, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Brighouse said as the minimum wage continues to increase, these challenges are expected to continue.

“My sense is the real challenge is going to be next year and the year after as the minimum wage is going up. So, I want to make sure that we’re out ahead of that,” Brighouse said. “We’ll have to see how this impacts student success — general student success — over time.”

Linda Schraeder, ASOC finance manager, said the new minimum wage allows students to earn their maximum amount faster.

“I think that the pay cap — not hurts students — it actually allows you to have one job and focus on one job and be a student but also know that you’re going to meet your work award. Whereas, a couple years ago, when the minimum wage was $9 an hour, it was harder to meet even $2,000 of your work award,” Schraeder said. “I think we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board come the summertime because it’s going to go up again to $14.25 and then by 2020 it’s going to go up to $15 an hour.”

According to Lasater, conversations between HR, Brighouse and student service directors, like Prebel, have taken place.

“There’s been conversations about gathering information about exactly what the problems are,” Lasater said. “I really want to emphasize the fact that they really are looking at this very, very seriously and trying to get a handle on how we might solve it.”

Members of The Occidental’s editorial board who were impacted by the pay cap have recused themselves from editing this article.