Student Workers Continue To Be Underpaid, Overworked
Nov 28, 2021
Katherine Arrington looks into the trials and tribulations of being a student worker at Dartmouth.
What does it mean to be a student worker?
It means making $13 an hour at an institution with a multi-billion-dollar endowment, working stressful shifts, dealing with understaffing and long lines, balancing the already exhausting Dartmouth workload with several hours of additional work, and being undervalued and under-compensated by the institution and community you work for.
The minimum wage worker of our current society is exploited: though the minimum wage was designed to give every worker a livable salary, huge increases in costs of housing, education, and child care coupled with only small increases in the minimum wage over the past few decades have meant this goal is far from realized. Meanwhile corporations and employers reap huge profits from the products created by minimum wage workers, the rich grow richer while the poor grow poorer.
Furthermore, this exploitation is not equally felt. Minimum wage workers are disproportionately people of color and women. African Americans comprise 12% of the workforce, yet 15% of the below-$15 an hour workforce. Hispanic people account for 16.5% of the total workforce, yet are nearly 23% of the sub-$15 wage workforce. Women constitute less than half of the workforce, yet are 54.7% of those who make less than $15 per hour. Centuries of discrimination and systemic racism, as well as gender roles, have contributed to this disproportionality. (This is also why the Forbes billionaire list is overwhelmingly white men.) Wage discrimination and the exploitation of the minimum wage worker is thus not only an issue of economic justice, but one of social justice.
The student worker, and in particular the Dartmouth student worker, is analogously exploited. Full-time students, in addition to balancing a full course-load, extracurricular commitments, and a social life, work as many as two to nearly thirty hours per week. These workers are vital to the Dartmouth ecosystem, helping the College operate (and profit) while paying less for labor.
Dartmouth Dining Services student workers are not minimum wage workers — they make more than the $7.25 minimum wage, though much less than what a livable wage is. Living costs, in the Upper Valley especially but in the U.S. as a whole, have been steadily increasing; meanwhile, the minimum wage has remained stagnant since July 2009. As an example, the median price of a home in Hanover is $724,300, which even working full-time at double the minimum wage, would take nearly 24 years for a worker to save up to — and that is if they did not spend any of the money they earned on anything else.
To become a DDS worker, a student must fill out an application consisting of a student profile with standard questions about who the student is and what they are doing this term as well as a preference sheet on which DDS location they would like to work for. After they are hired, they can begin working at $12 to $13 an hour, with a minimum of 60 hours required per term in order to be eligible for a raise. Dartmouth Dining boasts “some of the best pay rates at the College” and “a great team-oriented work environment.” Despite the allure of a $12 per hour wage and the tempting, stress-inducing work atmosphere, DDS student workers are disproportionately first-gen low-income, LGBTQ+, and people of color. Novack manager Alejandro Morales ‘24 shares that their workplace has a saying: “You don’t work at Novack because you want to, you work at Novack because you have to.”
Why is that?
For one thing, DDS locations are understaffed to the point where the work environment is beyond stressful. Factoring in the especially large number of students on campus this term, the lines have been particularly long. According to a student worker at Ramekin, the manager there regularly misses lunch breaks and even had to buy a foot massager to deal with the pain of standing and working for such long hours. Morales notes that they once left a Novack shift to immediately go home and puke “purely just from stress.” A student worker at Ramekin also remarked that “I’m so tired at the end of my shifts sometimes, because it’s so much, and I lose more time than just what’s scheduled because I have to recover.”
The reality of being a student worker also entails coping with a significant time-suck on top of the already time-scarce life of being a college student. “Being a student worker means you have to be really good at time management,” asserts Morales. Often, one has to make difficult decisions, sacrificing deeper immersion in classes and extracurricular activities: “The balance is hard to find, and I don’t think anyone at Novack has actually found it. And maybe it can’t be found,” Morales continues.
Yet another stressor of the job is that, sometimes, people are mean. DDS student workers cannot control the speed at which food and drinks are made, including during waves of students coming at the same time after a class period ends. The job is difficult enough without rude customers adding to the stress. A source at Ramekin shared that “sometimes it’s very stressful because students are mean; I don’t think they realize that we are students too.”
This behavior seems to be a symptom of a larger issue. The student worker went on to say that they “feel like there’s a very serious disconnect between the students who do not have to work and the students who do.” The fact of the matter is, the Dartmouth student population is rife with socioeconomic inequality. A New York Times study from 2013 found that 21% of students at Dartmouth were from the top 1%, 45% of students were from the top 5%, 69% of students were from the top 20%, and a mere 2.6% of students were from the bottom 20%. Those numbers were from eight years ago, yet even at present, only 55% of students at Dartmouth are on financial aid, which means the families of the other 45% can afford to drop $313,824 on a Dartmouth education. The amount of wealth some of the students at this institution are used to is staggering. And the thing is, the students wearing Canada Goose are not the ones working for DDS.
In fact, DDS student workers are overwhelmingly first-generation and low-income. Morales estimates that around 90% of the student workers at Novack are FGLI. A source at Ramekin stated that “Genuinely, if I did not have to work, I would not work at Ramekin.” Yet after having such a large quantity of fights with financial aid, at this point it just feels “hopeless.” The worker shared that “my paychecks are going to stuff for me, like food and haircuts, and my college tuition is paid for by loans. I’m working at Ramekin just to support myself in the short-term, not even in the long-term.”
So with all these issues, what can change? The source at Ramekin, when asked if shifts could be made less stressful, expressed: “Honestly, without opening more dining halls, no — because we’re so overpopulated on campus there are only so many places students can go.” Morales made similar remarks, saying “You can’t deal with the demand, the prices… The only thing you can do is help the workers think it’s worth it, and compensate [them] correctly.”
The bottom line is that Dartmouth College, with its multi-billion-dollar endowment, is profiting off of low-income students working at minimum wage. Yes, these jobs are necessary for students to be able to have, as they provide flexibility and job security otherwise hard to find for student workers. In fact, for some students, including international students and students under DACA, Dartmouth’s jobs are the only jobs they are able to work. Still, the College is not paying a competitive wage: the recent $2 increase is still not enough. Morales asserts that the College should be paying “not what New Hampshire is paying, but what Hanover is paying.” Dirt Cowboy pays $16 an hour, Boloco pays $16, and Jewel of India pays $17. There is also the fact that Hanover has one of the highest costs of living in the nation, at a rate 45% higher than the national average. Yet Dartmouth still has students working 54 hours a paycheck for $13 an hour.
At the end of the day, better pay is necessary. Student workers should be fully compensated for the value they create on campus, a sentiment that should be the bare minimum, and yet somehow is still something students are having to fight for.