Opinions & Editorials

Opinion: Student workers paid less than living wage

By Liska Koenig

The current minimum wage in San Francisco is $9.79 according to the City’s minimum wage ordinance. Student workers at City College, however, only get paid $9.00 per hour. So how can it be legal that City College is paying less than that? Is a student’s work less valuable than the work of somebody who is flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant?

Living in San Francisco and going to school is no piece of cake. The cost of living is above most places in the country. Rents are high and jobs that fit a busy student’s schedule are not easy to come by. Many students have no other choice than to find a job on one of the school’s campuses.

The situation is even more severe for international students. Their visas don’t include a work permit, which leaves this group of students no choice but to work on campus. Visa conditions require them to take 12 units per semester at $179 per unit. With the added costs of enrollment and student-health fees, these students pay an average of $2,400 per semester.

An international student who works an off-campus, under-the-table job risks immediate deportation if caught by immigration authorities. Employers who hire international students without a work authorization risk a hefty fine. International students also don’t qualify for financial aid or any fee waivers.

U.S. citizen students without California residency pay the same amount for tuition as international students, but they have the significant advantage of being able to work any job offered to them.
Do the math—15 hours per week at $9 per hour, multiplied by four, minus taxes: During a month without school holidays a student’s paychecks will add up to less than $500. While this sounds like a generous allowance for students who are living with their parents, it can’t be considered a living wage for anybody who has to pay rent, tuition and other living expenses.

City College is not breaking the law by paying student workers below the current minimum wage rate. It is governed by the San Francisco Community College District, a discrete legal entity that is separate and distinct from the City and County of San Francisco. Even though the school is located in San Francisco, and its employment of students occurs in San Francisco, City government does not have the power to impose its laws on other government entities, according to an email from Richard Waller of the City’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement.

“I feel like it’s not fair. What kind of incentive is that for students?” said Robert Price, a chemistry instructor at City College. “I would really like to see the current pay rate go up. It seems like something the college should think about and change.”

The current California budget crisis would be too easy of an excuse. Minimum wage rates get adjusted regularly, but City College has paid its student workers the same hourly rate since the spring semester 2006. Even students who take on more responsibility if they stay with the same department for a few semesters don’t get a raise. It makes no difference if a student is entrusted with shelving books in the library, cashiering at the cafeteria or working as a tutor in the math lab.

Other community colleges in the Bay Area pay their student workers above minimum wage. San Mateo Community College, for example, pays according to a tier system. Entry level jobs, which consist of tasks like filing and answering the phones, start out at $9.50, whereas tutors and lab aides make up to $14.25 per hour, according to the college’s Web site.

“I think what needs to happen is that people need to get organized, maybe through the Associated Student Council,” Price said.

Students only have limited power. The City College board of trustees serves as an advocate between the student community and the college. It is up to the board to stand up for student’s rights. Unfortunately no member of the board was available to comment on the situation.

City College likes to be seen as empowering people from the community. However, not paying students an hourly wage that measures up to the lowest standard can only be seen as negating the message the school sends out to the public.

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