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It’s time the University of Kentucky paid student workers what they’re worth | Opinion

This article was originally published on the Lexington Herald Leaderon April 6, 2023.

In 2020, with pressure from the wall-to-wall union, United Campus Workers of Kentucky, the University of Kentucky raised its minimum wage for all regular employees to $15/hour, making it the first public university to do so in the Commonwealth. Notably left out of that pay increase were undergraduate workers, who UK relies on for tasks fundamental to the university’s functioning: operating desks at residence halls, assisting with key research being carried out by staff, and even helping fellow students succeed in their studies. The reason for this exemption is that there is a technicality in how UK classifies undergraduate workers. While “regular” employees (i.e. full-time, non-student workers) were able to get a pay increase, the same was not true for workers classified as temporary, like undergraduate students. Because of this, it’s possible to find job postings across campus with wages as little as $8.25, but most hover around $10/hour. 

Undergraduate members of United Campus Workers launched a campaign in the fall of 2022 asking the administration of UK to establish a $15 minimum wage for all of the workers left out of the 2020 wage increases. The campaign has been ongoing since then and includes a petition outlining basic demands. Over 800 people have signed the petition asking for better wages, fairer treatment, and more protections for student workers. The primary ask is for UK to establish a $15 minimum wage for all employees — no exceptions. Other aspects include establishing venues for recourse in the event of unjust firings, and access to paid sick leave. Currently if a student worker is unjustly let go from their job on campus, there’s no course of retribution they can take to file a formal complaint. Students also do not have access to holiday pay or paid leave, which can be financially crippling during serious illness. 

Many students part of this campaign rely on campus wages to pay their rent, grocery bills, and in some cases school expenses. With the cost of living in Lexington rising to $16.99 in recent months, the need for a broad wage increase is more pressing than ever. UCW undergraduate member, Johnny Mendel, is active in the union and has faced challenges because of this.

“I’m a Resident Advisor, I work in one of the dorms,” Mendel said. “My job includes regularly meeting with residents, being on-call one or more nights a week, and working the desk 4 hours a week, among other things. I joined UCW because I was fed up with management saying we are “people first, students second, RAs third” then failing to back us up when it mattered. It’s hard to feel supported when you’re covering a shift at 4am, or you’re dealing with a resident verbally attacking you. It’s hard to feel supported when you work the desk for 4 hours a week and never see a paycheck. Sure, we get compensated with housing and a meal plan, but when you know that that costs UK practically nothing, while you’re giving nearly everything, that hardly feels like enough. So I joined UCW, because I also believe in $15 for all, including the desk clerks who spend their nights keeping the dorms safe, and including the RAs for their “responsibility hours” and their long weekends.” 

Undergraduate workers are past due for a living minimum wage. While many UK departments struggle to find workers to fill positions, students are looking elsewhere for employment in order to make ends meet. In the case of international students, many are not able to work off campus and can only live off of what their campus job pays them. The UK administration needs to know that their students are struggling. A $15 minimum wage can go a long way towards retaining financially struggling students and changing attitudes towards student workers. In order to stay the “University for Kentucky,” UK needs to pay undergraduate students what they’re worth.

Erin Maines is a UK student and worker who’s been involved in UCW since 2021.