It’s Time UK Paid Student Workers What They’re Worth: $15/hour

by Erin Maines, UCW Kentucky

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. Notably left out of that pay increase were undergraduate workers, who UK relies on for critical jobs across campus: operating desks at residence halls, assisting with key research being carried out by staff, and even helping fellow students succeed in classes. The reason for this exemption is a technicality in how UK classifies undergraduate workers. While “regular” employees (i.e., full-time, non-student workers) were able to win $15/hour, this did not carry over to workers classified as temporary, like undergraduate students. Because of this, jobs across campus can pay as little as $8.25, in a city where the cost of living is $16.99.

Undergraduate members of UCW 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. Since then a petition addressed to President Capilouto outlining basic demands has garnered over 750 signatures. The petition asks 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 appeals for unjust firings, and access to paid sick leave. Currently if a student worker is unjustly let go from their job on campus, there is 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 could go a long way helping students afford basic necessities. 

When asked about joining UCW, undergraduate member Johnny Mendel said:

I’m a Resident Advisor in one of the dorms. 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. 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.

Johnny Mendel, Student worker and UCW member

While a recent Kentucky Kernel article paints a mostly positive picture of what it is like to work on campus, it fails to mention these pressing issues. Student work on campus, in theory, can be a great option for those with tight schedules who need to be able to support themselves throughout their time in school. Undergraduate member, Mary Meyers, told us about about her experience, “You can only work on campus if you can afford to. I know I wouldn’t have been able to get by without family support in addition to my job. The things we’re asking for as a union, like higher wages and paid sick leave, would take this burden off of student workers. UK has the money to pay us more.”

This comes after a 23.4% raise to President Eli Capilouto’s salary, making him the highest paid president in the SEC. Because of low pay across campus jobs, students on campus are struggling to make ends meet and are seeking other employers who pay more. One undergraduate member who worked as a lab assistant on campus agreed and said that, “at $13/hr, working 20 hours a week, you cannot survive. I have now found a full-time job off campus that lets me survive living on my own with no support from parents. It pays $18/hr, works great with my schedule, and values me and my ideas.”

In many scenarios, undergraduate workers are fundamental to keeping campus running. Student workers help run information desks, keep other students safe in dorms, make sure events run smoothly, participate in and even conduct quality research, and so much more. Those responsibilities are not worth the wages being given to student workers right now. Because of this, undergraduate workers are past due for a living minimum wage, and the UK administration needs to know that their students are struggling. A $15 minimum wage for all workers, no exceptions, can go a long way towards retaining financially struggling students and fostering the success of those students. In order to be the “University for Kentucky,” UK needs to pay undergraduate students what they’re worth.

You can sign the petition below to support UK’s undergraduate workers:

Top photo: UCW members protest at UK in 2022. (Contributed)