The Minimum Wage Increase, Its Victors and Its Next Steps



The university adopted its minimum wage exemption quietly.


The story of life at Fordham as told by schoolwide email blasts is not the story that students, faculty and­­, for the most part­­, staff, know very well.

On Sept. 25, the Office of Human Resources announced via email (to an audience that suspiciously excluded student workers) that Fordham would claim an exemption to the Minimum Wage Act reserved for religious and degree­ granting institutions and “cap the minimum wage for covered student workers at $13 per hour.” A New York State information sheet about pay exemptions for interns was attached. One month and four days later, the office of Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Martha Hirst reported: “we identified funds sufficient to cover the increased minimum wage in this year’s budget.”

It would seem, according to my email inbox, that the Vice Presidential Board had a change of heart. Or maybe, like a pirate or “Indiana­ Jones” ­type, they found some funding after a tireless and beguiling hunt and decided to share some of those spoils with student workers. What goes unacknowledged, however, is the bulk of the story. There is a beginning, an epilogue and … that’s it? Plot holes beg to be filled in, and the workers who won’t benefit come Jan. 1 would benefit from hearing it all in full.

The victory of a legal livable wage was a direct result of student pressure from all sides­­ via the press, student governance and, most of all, grassroots organizing. The Observer speedily published a report on the email and the impact of a hypothetical wage cap. United Student Government announced via public statement its support for a $15 wage, which will soon become the legal minimum (read: MINIMUM, as in bare minimum) wage in New York City. Students for Sex and Gender Equality and Safety (SAGES) called in student workers to organize a petition and advocacy campaign as early as the first week of October.

After reaching hundreds of student workers, SAGES crafted a set of demands that, if enacted, would better dignify the Fordham worker. For instance, the workers who are paid minimum wage should receive their paychecks more often than once every 40 days. Student workers should be protected from the Trump administration’s proposal to pass legislation that would allow employers to discriminate against transgender, gender non­conforming and intersex (TGNCI) employees, although Fordham’s indignant silence on the threats to its own TGNCI students is another sad story altogether.

Pressure from students was enough to send the university into PR panic mode. Like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ decisive action after this summer’s Prime Day boycotts and strikes, the Fordham Vice Presidential Board implemented a limited wage increase to $15, aware that this would be enough to assuage outside pressure so the wealthy executive boards could facilitate and obscure further workplace oppressions.

SAGES gathered testimony from dozens of anonymous students; the first draft of the petition collected almost 30 signatures and the final draft has 47 signatories. The final draft began circulation only 10 hours before the office of the CFO sent its fateful email last Monday.

“It’s ridiculous that this school doesn’t take into account that many low income students have work study,” one student worker wrote to SAGES. “When the wage increases, so does the city, money wise. So it’s really unfair.” Another student worker lamented: “It is not just difficult to live off of Fordham’s $13 wage, it is unlivable … my family lives below the poverty line. I have to pay for my own finances, including Metrocards. As a commuter this has become intolerable and I might have to transfer colleges if wages are not increased.”

It wasn’t too late for this student, but another had already been forced to move on: “I heard that Fordham was opting out of the wage increase the day the email was sent to administrators and began interviewing elsewhere the next week. My office was understanding when I put in my two weeks to pursue a better paying opportunity.”

Let me make this abundantly clear: If not for the bad press, outrage and organized response from students, Fordham would get away with paying poverty wages to the student workers they already burden with student debt and tenuous working conditions. Although Fordham has raised the minimum wage, this does not change the school’s unwillingness to pay its lowest­ earning employees properly while they can exploit the labor of the most vulnerable.

While student workers held Fordham accountable to attain the legal minimum wage, and while this is undoubtedly a success for student workers, there is more to be done. After the last minimum wage increase was enacted, work study students “have had to take less hours to avoid reaching the cap set by Fordham” (quoted from another anonymous student worker) on their allocated financial aid funds. A wage increase is not a wage increase if students’ hours are slashed. Fordham student workers will still struggle under the $15 hourly wage.

This is not the first time Fordham has tried to pull the rug from under students by offering less than the bare minimum and still expecting thanks. While student workers across the ten undergraduate and graduate colleges are going to be paid the $15 minimum wage come January, Fordham’s student employees still outnumber and overpower the administration that thinks their laborers are under their thumb.

This is why a coalition of SAGES members and student workers demand University President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., Vice President of Human Resources Kay Turner and University Senior VP/Treasurer/CFO Martha Hirst enact the changes specified in the SAGES petition. The stipulations of the petition can be found below.

(1) Raise wages for all student employees (student workers and work study recipients) to $15 per hour on or by January 1, 2019.

(2) Publicly commit to raising student wages in accordance with New York State and New York City Law from this point forward. Student employees whose wages exceeded $13/hour will not suffer retaliatory cuts in wages.

(3) Publicly ensure that work study students will be able to work sufficient hours each semester to meet or exceed the funding allocation outlined in their financial aid package.

(4) Increase financial aid to student workers so that NO student employed by Fordham University accrues burdensome student loans, or is offered student loans as part of their financial aid package.

(5) Announce in a public statement and publish a policy statement that Fordham will NOT to discriminate in hiring or pay practices based on sex, gender identity, religion, national origin, race, sexuality or citizenship status.

(6) Pay student workers on a consistent schedule once every two weeks. Currently, many student workers are paid once a month, with payments often arriving more than a week late.

(7) Remove limits to hours or shifts worked, and pay students in full for work until the end of the academic year.

(8) Offer student workers sick or disability pay if they are unable to work.