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Minimum wage hikes are coming for the kids at Columbia University

Melody Hahm
·West Coast Correspondent

In the minimum wage battle going on across U.S. cities and states, New York’s Columbia University is the latest to take a stand on the issue.

On Monday Columbia announced it will raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next three years for all work-study and part-time student workers. And just this week California moved to raise its minimum wage to $15 by 2022 for large businesses and 2023 for smaller companies.

“It’s great that the minimum wage has been raised, but some are concerned that this change is being implemented over the course of three years,” says Rachel Deal, a sophomore at Columbia who works a few hours every week as an administrative assistant on campus. “We’re living in New York City and it costs a lot to live on this campus,” she says.

The move follows NYU’s similar announcement last week that student workers would get paid $15 an hour. Columbia University Provost John Coatsworth said the university would “soon provide further details about how this will be achieved” in an email to students. When asked what the minimum wage was for hourly workers who are not students, a Columbia spokesperson did not respond to that question and said there is no independent minimum wage for non-student employees. The office of the Provost did not respond to requests for comment. The NY state minimum wage is $9 per hour.

This is far from a New York phenomenon, but naturally, the wage increase is not the same across the board. University of Wisconsin-Madison announced in February that it would be increasing the minimum wage for student employees from $7.25 to $9 per hour, effective this July. The minimum wage in Wisconsin is the federal $7.25.

Mirroring the city’s boost in employee wages
Coatsworth’s decision comes in light of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo establishing a $15 minimum wage for more than 28,000 employees of the State University of New York (SUNY), including students in the work-study program, earlier this year. This is a part of his broader push to implement a $15 minimum for all of New York state (and part of the international movement 'Fight for 15').

At Columbia, student activists, including a group called Student-Worker Solidarity, had been vehemently lobbying for this wage increase.

Twenty-nine states (plus D.C.) have set their minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 and 39 cities have actually passed higher minimum wages than their respective state or federal wages -- 14 of those passed in 2015 alone.

It’s undeniable that municipalities are taking matters into their own hands, particularly since the federal $7.25 wage floor has been in place since July 2009, and student employees are demanding they be paid equitably as well.

Tsedeye Gebreselassie, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project (NELP) says more and more cities and universities are enacting change themselves because it’s simply not happening on a federal level. “People are figuring out all the different ways to figure out wages -- how they can raise them and for whom,” she says.  

Shortchanging students?
According to the Department of Labor, employers can pay 85% of the minimum wage to college students. There’s even a provision in the federal minimum wage law that students under 20 years old can be paid $4.25 per hour in the first 30 days of employment (which is considered a “training” period).

The hope is that once the student earns a college degree, he or she will be able to eave the minimum wage workforce, says Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, a publication focused on college and university news.

Jaschik notes that students have a better work ethic when they have a part-time job, but not when their work responsibilities overshadow their studies.

“If a college cares about students graduating within four years, they need to pay them enough so they’re not inclined to take on hours and hours of work. That’s a good thing,” he says.

Ben Zipperer, research economist at the liberal think tank Washington Center for Equitable Growth, says there hasn’t been evidence yet of the impact of such wage increases, especially for student workers. 

A far cry from the solution
With the average college senior graduating with $35,000 in student loan debt today, it would be a stretch to say that an increase of a few dollars in wages would dramatically change their financial situation for the better.

“The increase in the minimum wage won’t help address tuition costs -- it’s more so about giving them a little bit of extra money for things like books,” says Gebreselassie.