Chants of “higher rates for student pay” shook the South side of the Hofstra University campus on Wednesday as student activists protested the Frank G. Zarb School of Business groundbreaking ceremony, calling on university administrators to provide a fair, livable wage for its student employees.
The protest was organized by Jesse Saunders, a junior History major, and Brenna Lilly, a sophomore English major. Together, the duo rallied about 20 of their peers as they marched across campus protesting what they see as an unfair policy.
“When I saw The Chronicle’s front page about the $30 million Zarb building about to be erected, and then right next to it, telling people about how students aren’t being paid the state minimum wage, I thought that was absurd, just that juxtaposition” said Lilly. “This protest is to create an environment at Hofstra, a school which I love, to help Hofstra be the best school it can be and to make sure it is serving its students holistically.”
Hofstra currently guarantees its student workers the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour–not the Nassau County minimum wage, which currently sits at $10 per hour, and is set to rise to $11 per hour come December 2017.
Because it is a university, Hofstra is not legally obligated to pay its student employees neither the state nor the county minimum wage. Still, the Hofstra’s base wage is lower than the starting pay rate other regional schools like Adelphi University or Stony Brooke University, who voluntarily elect to pay their students above the federal minimum wage. According to the Hofstra employee handbook, on campus employers can, however, elect to pay their students above the base hourly wage.
Some students, like sophomore English Creative Writing student Regina Volpe say this loophole creates a substantial burden for Hofstra’s student workers. “It causes a lot of stress on not only me, but my parents as well. Going to Hofstra is a pricey endeavor, even with scholarships and loans,” said Volpe.
“I really rely on financial aid to go here, and so I have to be meticulous about how much I’m racking up debt-wise and have to start saving now in order to not drown in repayments. Finances aren’t something I can just push aside during my college years,” Volpe said.
In a statement to The Hofstra Chronicle, Hofstra University Relations said, “A large majority of our current student employees earn greater than the federal minimum wage and a significant number earn NYS’s [New York State’s] current minimum wage.”
“Hofstra follows the federal minimum wage to offer the opportunity for student employment to the largest number of students. The federal share of the wages received by a student in the federal work study program is dictated by federal regulation and depends in part on the type of job,” read the statement.
Still, concerns among student workers lingers as they say the federal minimum wage is not enough for them to make ends meet, as the cost of living in Long Island is higher than in other parts of the country– even with tax exempt status.
“Yes, you get tax exempt status as a student worker, but even if I’m getting all the income tax… that doesn’t translate,” said Saunders. “You’re not earning the same as someone who gets paid $10 an hour, because income tax is not 25 percent.”
Lilly and Saunders both say, however, that this protest was about more than just higher pay. Issues like mental healthcare on campus were also at the forefront of their message, as they say Hofstra makes it difficult for students to afford the care they need.
At Hofstra, students are entitled to three free sessions at the Saltzman Center, after which they must pay $30 per session. Students like Aleks Gustafaon, a sophomore English and Film Studies and Production major who participated in Wednesday’s protest, say Hofstra needs to reevaluate its priorities.
“I do think that Hofstra’s current priorities are quite unethical,” said Gustafon. “Students still have to pay for mental health services, which is one of the most important student health programs that Hofstra offers.”
“While I understand that a lot of these expensive projects [like the Zarb building] come from grants or donations, that means that Hofstra needs to be courting donors who will pay for more effective projects and services. Hofstra’s economics in general are troublesome at best and unethical at worst,” Gustafon said.
However, the protest has been met with some pushback, even from within the student body. Some, like senior journalism major Erica Brosnan, say that student workers are already being paid a fair amount for the level of work they do.
“Look, Hofstra can choose to pay people more than that minimum wage if they want to. No one is automatically bound to that rate forever,” said Brosnan. “And, honestly, I don’t think you should be paid $10 an hour just for sitting behind a both swiping people in, especially when half the time those people are doing their homework during their shifts.”
Others say that raising the minimum wage would have broader negative economic impacts on the school as a whole. “The main consquences of a minimum wage increase for hofstra students would be a decrease in hirings, an overall increase in the price of the goods (AKA tuition),” said junior Political science, Finance and Economics major Nathaniel Aron.
“Ultimately while there are two sides of this debate, both recognize that increasing the minimum wage usually does not succeed in fulfilling its main purpose, which is to give the less fortunate a fighting chance,” Aron said.
Still, the students were able to capture the attention of university officials, as University President Stuart Rabinowitz and Dean of Students Sofia Pertuz both personally approached the group, allowing the protesters to voice their concerns to the administration directly.
Lilly and Saunders want to keep this momentum growing, and have already begun to plan their next moves. This includes more talks with the administration, and collecting signatures on an online petition to grow student support for their movement.
“At the end of the day, if you really disagree, if you hate the minimum wage, if you think capitalism will figure it out, that’s fine,” said Saunders. “If you research my petition and disagree with it, then I’d love to hear your concerns so we can figure them out… We’re fighting for everyone.”