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Student workers are pushing for the University to increase minimum wages, citing long work hours and rising tuition costs.

March 30, 2022

Student Workers Call for Higher Wages at Student-Organized Town Hall

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Nine students gathered on Friday, March 25 for a town hall supporting student workers. 

Part of a campaign to raise minimum wage to $15 per hour for student workers, the People’s Organizing Collective Cornell hoped the meeting would give space to air grievances and connect with peers. After handing out 150 quarter cards and canvassing from Ives Hall to Hollister Hall, the turnout reflected students’ hectic schedules and a need for more solidarity.

“Being a student worker, you’re always busy, you’re always tired, your schedule is always packed,” POCC Member José Pérez-Zetune ’24 said.

And some student workers worry what a campaign could mean for their own financial security. 

“We’re so reliant on Cornell and these jobs, be it our own having money, or be it work study,” said POCC member Annie Stetz ’23. “There’s a fear [that] if I talk out, I’ll lose that job – and I need that money.”

Cornell adheres to the New York state minimum wage of $13.20 per hour – up from $12.50 the year prior. The rise in the previous year’s minimum wage was part of the state’s plan to phase-in an eventual $15 minimum wage.

Some students make minimum wage to help cover rising tuition costs through the federal work study program. In 2019, 2,604 students participated in work study jobs. Some students like Kassidy Slaughter ’24 are saving to pay off loans. 

“I have to work. It’s not an option,” POCC Member Slaughter said.

Slaughter worked as a teaching assistant for Information Science 4240: Designing Technology for Social Impact last semester. Hired for 10 hours a week, she found herself working overtime, planning activities and holding extra Zoom meetings. 

Some students said they feel undercompensated.

“I realized I had to put so much more effort to really make sure the students were learning,” Slaughter said. At about $13 per hour, she said her efforts were not worth the pay. 

POCC Members Sam Ivey ’24 and José Pérez-Zetune ’24 are food service workers for the University. Both compare their wages to the price of food at Mac’s Cafe and Cook Dining Hall, respectively.

“My station is right next to the cashier, so I can hear people’s prices,” Ivey said. “That’s a lot. I get paid less than that an hour.”

Stetz spent five semesters and a summer making calls for Cornell’s Annual Fund, requesting donations from alumni. Stetz said that while she enjoyed the work, and it paid more than the $7.25 per hour jobs in her home state of Pennsylvania, she found certain aspects of the job to be uncomfortable. 

“We’re raising Cornell millions of dollars, and we’re not making more than New York [State]’s minimum wage,” Stetz said. 

Stetz followed a script, which noted that donations could support making Cornell accessible through scholarships. She said that this could feel like asking alumni to fund her own education.

She said she encountered harassment, including from one alum who said the College of Veterinary Medicine became a “glorified sorority” since admitting women. Stetz shifted this semester to do research in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

POCC, a local of United Students Against Sweatshops, wants to see student workers better organized, said the members. 

“[They] are pretty isolated in their workplace and their shifts,” said Pérez-Zetune, who also raised concerns about the University’s attitude toward labor organizing. They pointed to Cornell’s violation of the National Labor Relations Act in 2017, when graduate students attempted to elect a union. 

POCC is not currently pursuing a project to unionize student workers. Many full-time campus workers are unionized as United Auto Workers Local 2300, granting them collective bargaining abilities with the University for wages and benefits.

POCC started a petition four months ago for a $15 minimum wage. It received 941 signatures, from supporters on and off campus. 

“We are workers,” Ivey said. “No matter how old you are, if you’re a minor, if you’re undocumented, if you’re a student, you’re still a worker, and your work should be compensated.” 

Correction, March 30, 12:45 p.m.: A previous version of this article inaccurately mentioned Mac’s Cafe as part of Cornell Dining, it is actually separate under the Statler Hotel. This error has been corrected.