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The Minnesota Daily

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Episode 91: Students discuss UMN minimum wage

The University’s CBS and Institute on the Environment recently raised minimum wages for student workers to $15 or above. 

SAM MOSER: Hi everyone, my name is Sam Moser.

SEAN ERICSON: And I’m Sean Ericson.

MOSER: And you’re listening to In The Know, a podcast by The MN Daily.

ERICSON: Together, we’ll be exploring the University of Minnesota’s students and communities with each episode. In this episode, we’ll be discussing the minimum wage for student employees on campus. We’ll be hearing from several different students, as well as from the University’s administration. 

MOSER: According to the University of Minnesota Office of Human Resources, as of January 1, minimum wages for all on-campus student employees average between $10.33 to $12.66 per hour.

As of January 3, the College of Biological Sciences began paying student workers a minimum of $15 per hour, and the Institute on the Environment set their minimum at $15.91 per hour. According to Dean Valery Forbes, she stated in an email, “we recognize the critical and timely need to provide a liveable wage for our student positions and are committed to ensuring students can afford to work on campus.”

ERICSON: Minneapolis minimum wage is set at $12.50 for small businesses, and at $14.25 an hour for businesses with 100 or more employees. According to, the minimum will eventually increase to $15/hr for all businesses.

Ken Horstman, the Vice President of the Office of Human Resources, sat down with the Daily to explain why the University is not obligated to pay their student employees on par with the minimum wage set by the city of Minneapolis. 

HORSTMAN: Well, the University of Minnesota is a separate public entity from the City of Minneapolis or St. Paul. So we are not required to follow ordinances that the city may mandate. And we look at our student worker positions differently than a for-profit industry may look at it.

MOSER: According to Horstman, since the University isn’t required to follow city ordinances, student wages function as a form of financial aid.

HORSTMAN: We received guidance under the Board of Regents policy that speaks to this as a component of a student’s education and for many, it’s a part of their financial aid package. Federal Work Study guidelines provide that the minimum wage is the federal minimum wage or the state minimum wage. So that is where we start, that is not what every student here gets paid. But that is where we start.

MOSER: Davyd Tennis is a student employee at the Center for Outdoor Adventure. As a head setter at the center’s rock wall, Tennis makes $11.50/hr. The Daily asked what he thinks about the U of M having a minimum wage below the mark set by the city.

TENNIS: It’s kind of ridiculous that some people are making so little money, especially like, outside of just the COA where I work, there are a ton of people I know that definitely put in a lot more like mentally taxing work for less money than I make. And that just seems kind of ridiculous, especially for people that are like, really, they need these jobs to pay for tuition and pay for rent and whatnot.

ERICSON: According to the Urban Institute, with rising tuition and a falling minimum wage when adjusted for inflation, working through college is no longer possible like it was in the 1960s and ‘70s. 

According to the Urban Institute, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a public college student could cover tuition, fees and most of their room and board by working 10 hours a week during the school year and 35 hours a week over the summer.

Tennis didn’t think that it’s possible for students to get by nowadays like they could in the 60s and 70s.

TENNIS: Bootstrapping your way through college is ridiculous. Now, if you are going into college without any financial backing or anything from your parents, or a good scholarship, you are going to be in heavy debt by the end of it. Even if you work like 40 hours a week, which is dumb, you can’t do that while going to school if you want to succeed.

MOSER: Jose Ayala is a first-year international student, majoring in sports management. He helps run athletic events at the U, including ticket-taking and other duties. According to Ayala and Tennis, one advantage of working on campus is that it’s much more convenient than traveling off campus for a job.

AYALA: Before coming here to study, I had never been to Minneapolis or Minnesota at all. So it’s very convenient, because I don’t really know much about the city. I have gone through some places, but I’m not familiar with the, with this city. And it’s very convenient, ‘cause I just can go by, by the bus in five minutes or go walking 15 minutes. So it’s super convenient, and I know campus very, very well.

MOSER: Tennis spoke from personal experience about the convenience of on-campus employment as he currently works both on and off campus.

TENNIS: If I had the chance to make a higher salary, I would love to work at the U and like at the rock wall where I work as many hours as I could and drop my other job, but I just don’t have that option.

ERICSON: The Daily also met with Noah Wexler. Wexler is a PhD student studying labor economics and an advocate with the Council of Graduate Students.

Wexler explained that reporting hours in graduate student jobs is different from the typical undergraduate job due to high irregularity in actual work time, leading students to work more or less than the anticipated amount of time.

WEXLER: And you have this 20 hour a week expectation. At the same time, it’s totally unregulated. And so there’s people who, sometimes, work well over 20 hours a week, but they’re only getting paid for 20 hours a week.

ERICSON: Wexler explained that wages for graduate students are regulated differently.

WEXLER: They bin different groups of workers at the U into what’s called different, like, job codes, or bargaining units.

ERICSON: And grad students do make more than undergrads.

WEXLER: So the lowest paid grad assistant, by University regulation, if you’re a grad assistant, your, like, job code is 95XX, is what it’s considered. And this is TAs, RAs, research assistants, grad instructors, and then a couple of other random positions like graduate assistant coach, the lowest rate for them is $19.97

ERICSON: However, how much grads get paid can vary widely across departments.

WEXLER: Nearly every grad assistant works 20 hours a week or less. And the hourly rate wildly fluctuates across the University. So you could literally have two TAs doing effectively the same work, but depending on the department they’re working for, they could have very different hourly wages, and as a result, very different, like, overall salaries.

ERICSON: According to the Office of Human Resources, hourly pay for graduate and professional assistants ranges from $19.97 an hour to $31.78. According to Horstman, increasing the minimum wage on campus might come with significant downsides.

HORSTMAN: If we were to go from 10.33 to 15, there would definitely be an impact on the number of jobs being reduced, the number of student workers.

ERICSON: In order to change the minimum wage, it has to be done in a calculated and thoughtful manner, according to Horstman.

HORSTMAN: But the minimum wage, I think, I don’t, I don’t necessarily see it going immediately to 15. But if we were to raise the floor, I think we would do it in a cadence where year over year, we could continue that trend. So the gap between what it is in the local community and our student wages would not become more significant.

ERICSON: Horstman mentioned that the University is open to the idea of colleges having flexibility. As stated earlier, not all colleges subscribe to the $10.33 minimum wage. 

HORSTMAN: If someone like the College of Biological Sciences were to say, we feel that the value of the work in the labs by student workers is $15 an hour and they obviously have stated an opinion on that, individual departments are able to make those decisions, and they typically consult with us on that, so that is available today.

ERICSON: Horstman also touched on student employment opportunities that offer valuable career related experiences. Students are often willing to accept low wages for these positions. He indicated that the University considers themselves in the early stages of a transitional period toward offering these students more substantial payment in the future.

HORSTMAN: You know, I am not saying that every instance like that currently, is following that pattern of receiving a higher wage, but I think we have started moving in that direction.

You know, again, there will probably be people that share a perspective that it’s not enough, but I think we are, we are open to taking action. We’re just trying to cautiously approach it so we’re being stewards of the resources we have.

MOSER: Tennis also understands that some jobs on campus offer value far beyond the pay. As a rock wall setter in the climbing gym, he is happy to gain experience with the trade despite the lower pay.

TENNIS: Setting is a industry that’s like very hard to break into. And sort of like finding these, whether it be volunteer experiences, or setting at a university gym, those are sort of like everyone who has a professional setter sort of has to make that initial jumping point in and like, a lot of people aren’t even paid for their first setting position. So it is something that is sort of, I’m thankful to have, so I can actually make some money off it.

MOSER: In order to make ends meet, Tennis has to work two jobs. 

TENNIS: Then again, it’s like, definitely, I have to work another job. So like, it is sort of just like a passion, fun job. I work at Vertical Endeavors, which is another rock climbing gym, as a shift manager there that I’m paid. Still not great. But I am making above Minneapolis minimum wage, which is nice. But like that said is like, ideally, if I had it the way I wanted, I’d make enough money at the U’s wall to work there.

MOSER: Horstman and other administration members want students to know that steps are being taken to address the minimum wage on campus. 

HORSTMAN: The President has asked us to have a small workgroup to assess student worker wages. And we’re doing that and I don’t know, Samuel, what the outcome will be from that. We are early on in it. And we have been talking with the MSA officers, just met with them recently and committed to continue to have that connection as we go forward in this project.

MOSER: If any change is to be made, its implementation will likely take place this upcoming fall.

HORSTMAN: But we’re hoping to have a recommendation to the President, yet this fiscal year by the end of this semester, which then would likely, whatever change we would be able to accommodate system wide, we would put it in place for the fall.

ERICSON: Some students have expressed a hope for higher wages, accommodating for rising tuition and cost of living. As Horstman brought to public attention, there are many factors to consider before making such a change. Concerns include expense and reduced work availability that would come along with higher wages.

MOSER: And to all listeners, thanks for tuning in. We’ll see you next time. I’m Sam Moser.

ERICSON: I’m Sean Ericson.

MOSER: And this, is In The Know.

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