Ming DeMers/Sun Assistant Photo Editor

Cornell Outdoor Education employees seek equitable pay and improved working conditions through the formation of the Cornell Outdoor Educators Coalition.

May 8, 2023

Student Employees of Cornell Outdoor Education Organize Coalition for Equitable Pay, Improved Working Conditions

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The idea for a coalition of Cornell Outdoor Education employees struck Emile Bensedrine ’23 at COE’s senior dinner, hosted in November 2022. He found himself sitting around a table with people he neither knew nor recognized, which prompted him to question the lack of community among COE staff.

“I [realized that] half the people at this table I’ve never met,” Bensedrine said. “We’re a super siloed off organization, and we don’t even talk to each other. And then one person said, ‘If you handed me a union card right now, I would sign it.’”

The next month, about 10 student organizers and employees of COE gathered over lentil soup at a table in Goldwin Smith Hall. There, they discussed plans to form a coalition of COE students, employees and allies meant to advocate for better pay, a more diverse working environment and greater student involvement in COE decisions.

A few months later, those initial whispers of a representative body have morphed into the Cornell Outdoor Educators Coalition, whose recent efforts have included petitioning for a $14.20 per hour baseline wage, in line with the minimum wage of New York state, for all COE employees; better accommodations for COE employees guiding trips; clear and accessible wage scales; a peer-led grievance resolution process and more funding from the University. The petition garnered over 350 signatures from Cornell community members and OEC supporters.

According to Zohar Grinvald ’25, an organizer with OEC, COE employees lacked an organized, intentional community.

“There’s no place for people to come together and just be, so that’s missing, and because that doesn’t exist, there’s no place for people to realize that the problems they’re facing are also problems that other people are facing,” Grinvald said. “So OEC is kind of the solution. Collective action needs to be taken — let’s try to bring people together and figure something out.”

Organizers brought their petition to COE Co-Director Mark Holton last week, resulting in a conversation that Holton called “inspiring,” adding that OEC’s platform is in alignment with COE’s strategic plan.

“Our meeting was inspiring. Our values are very well aligned, and most of the concerns brought up are things we have already been searching for ways to accomplish,” Holton wrote in an email to The Sun. “I think the first step is to make a regular meeting schedule to share information on what we are working on with OEC or anyone who wants to join in.”

Pay equity is the first item listed on OEC’s petition. According to Bensedrine, in one case, an instructor of a canoe camping course was compensated $412 for 113 hours of work, which works out to $3.64 per hour. Pay at similar levels is a common occurrence for COE course instructors, who are stipended employees. Some positions, like guiding the pre-freshman Cornell Outdoor Odyssey program, are entirely volunteer positions where guides are expected to arrive in Ithaca before the trip starts and pay for their own housing. Peer institutions such as Dartmouth College, however, provide food, housing and transportation on the days before the trip starts, while Princeton University offers a $17 an hour wage throughout the trip.

Employees at the Cornell Lindseth Climbing Center, however, are paid $13.50 to $17.20 an hour, according to Sophia Openshaw ’23, who has worked at the wall for over two years.

“When I was applying for [COE] jobs, it was pretty clear to me [that] I love [the positions], but not enough to work for less than minimum wage,” Openshaw said. “If I’m going to be putting in this number of hours, I have other things that I have to pay for.”

To organizers at OEC, pay equity is the first step to creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

“With pay equity comes accessibility and removing those barriers, because there are a lot of talented people at this university who have the skill set to really add to this organization, but the barriers are the jobs are not paid well. The training is unpaid, and then you’re expected to get these other certifications,” Grinvald said. “So if you’re not experienced, [even] if you have an interest and you have the leadership skills, it’s not really an accessible space for you.”

Emily Kao ’22, who has instructed physical education courses — which are a graduation requirement for undergraduate students — guided Odyssey and worked at the Lindseth Climbing Center, noted discrepancies in whether certain employees are paid for mandatory training.

“It would be weird — people who started as PE instructors wouldn’t get paid for training, but if I had to go to a training for working at the climbing wall and it’s the same training, I would get paid because I’m on Workday and I get paid hourly,” Kao said.

According to Holton, this difference is due to whether employees are listed as hourly or exempt, meaning they are not eligible for overtime pay or a minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act. According to the Cornell Law School Law Information Institute, exempt employees are usually in “professional, administrative, executive, outside sales and computer-related positions which have a base pay of at least $35,568 for the year.”

OEC organizers have also set their sights on the Moriah Endowment, which “provides financially disadvantaged students with assistance to cover COE course fees, promoting equal access and reducing financial barriers to participation in COE programs.” Organizers are hoping for representation “in the budgeting process to ensure the Moriah Endowment accessibility goals include creating fair conditions for COE workers,” according to the petition.

Holton said that using annual funds from the endowment to improve instructor pay may be possible as the fund continues to mature. Currently, only about 4 percent of COE’s funding comes from the University, while the majority is made up of support from donors and student fees for courses. Bensedrine said OEC has plans to advocate for the University to allocate more funds to COE.

Nevertheless, right now, the nascent OEC is still finding its footing. Bensedrine said the organization plans to set an agenda for short- and long-term goals, including embedding OEC in COE while assuring it remains an independent organization.

“All of this is going to require some long-term thinking and bringing a lot of people to the table,” Bensedrine said. “We want OEC to be a part of all of COE and hopefully build a much stronger network of connections between student employees, our bosses and the broader community under the common goal of a more accessible and equitable COE.”