Admissions Office Will No Longer Pay Student Hosts, United Undergraduate Workers of Swarthmore Forms
*Edit: In a statement released on September 11th on its Facebook page, UUWS decided to end its no host without pay pledge to avoid "hurting low-income prospective students who [hosts] would be hosting at DiscoSwat."
On August 9th, 2018, Swarthmore College’s Vice President of Admissions, Dean Jim Bock ‘90, sent an email to student employees of the Swarthmore Admissions Office. The email stated that the College will no longer pay students who work as overnight hosts for prospective students.
At the beginning of the email, Bock thanked student workers for serving as hosts in the past, inviting these students to return as hosts for the upcoming Fall 2018 semester. Bock continued “I am also writing to let you know that the Admissions Office has updated its policy and will no longer pay overnight hosts, effective as of the fall 2018 semester.” Bock’s email described “a new way to thank [their] student hosts” aside from financial compensation. “We truly value the service that student hosts provide, and we will recognize their efforts with gifts of Swarthmore swag,” Bock detailed in his email. “Swarthmore swag” refers to clothing, bags, and miscellaneous items that carry the Swarthmore College emblem.
Bock cited in his email a survey conducted by the Admissions Office in Spring of 2018 as one of the reasons for the College’s decision to terminate financial compensation: “The survey results showed that nearly 75 percent of students who chose to host said that they were not influenced, or were influenced very little, to do so because of possible payment, and that they would have volunteered to host without payment.” Bock went on to write that “more than two thirds of students said that they would be as likely or even more likely to host in the future without being paid for it, or that they would continue to host prospective students regardless of whether payment was offered.”
The news created an uproar among many student workers, who voiced their concerns on social media and across campus. Many students felt this seemingly unilateral decision by the College to be unfair and exploitative, as reflected in Facebook posts by student workers.
According to Bock, it is not uncommon for colleges and universities to elect student overnight hosts on a volunteer basis. Bock wrote to Voices about the decision, noting “Hosting was never intended to be a guaranteed or sustainable form of employment. This change reflects admissions best practices employed by many institutions where students voluntarily offer their hosting time to promote their institutions.”
In response to the decision, student employees of the College, led by Jissel Becerra ‘20, Gilbert Orbea ‘19, Amorina Pearce ‘19, and Will Marchese ‘20, have allied together to form United Undergraduate Workers of Swarthmore (UUWS), a group dedicated to combating Swarthmore’s “mistreatment” and “underpayment” of student workers. On their newly launched website, UUWS asserts, “Drawing on this nation’s history of worker violations, Swarthmore College has been complicit in underpaying and mistreating undergraduate workers for far too long. We face skyrocketing tuition costs, insurmountable student debt, and stagnant wages...We know that Swarthmore College can afford to pay us what we deserve and treat us with respect, yet time after time, the college has deliberately chosen not to.” Their full statement is here.
According to Faith Booker ‘21, UUWS was born of concerns about student labor exploitation on campus that had been brewing for a long time prior. On Thursday, August 16th, UUWS released a video of student workers detailing their experiences as college employees. In this video, Jissel Becerra ‘20, explains her experiences working for Swarthmore’s Writing Associate (WA) program: “As a low income student facing the many hidden and unexpected costs of a college education, having more than one job on campus is essentially mandatory for me. So I couldn’t help but be shocked and frustrated when I learned that as a Writer’s Associate, I would have to undergo an entire semester’s worth of job training without financial compensation. So when I read Jim Bock’s email that undergraduate workers would no longer be compensated for hosting prospective students, I knew that this was a much larger campus and nationwide problem.”
An anonymous student describes their experience as well, saying “after taking a leave of absence to tend to my mental illness, I returned to my job as a Writing Associate last fall. [My boss] repeatedly refused to meet with me to discuss how I should manage my health in the workplace, instead intimating that anyone who had to make such a request would be unfit for employment. On December 21st, 2017 I was fired by email for being 10 minutes late to an option reading week shift. Not only were my health accommodations not respected as per the Americans with Disabilities Act, they were never even fully heard... After a full semester of unpaid job training for the WA program, I lost my most important source of income at Swarthmore.” Voices could not immediately reach the Director of the Writing Associates Program, Jill Gladstein, for comment.
Other students emphasize the need for higher wages. Grace Dumdaw ‘21 states in the video: “Last year I was working three steady jobs on top of being a paid host. Even with these three jobs I was not making enough money to support myself comfortably...As a student on financial aid and someone who took out a lot of expensive student loans, $10 an hour is just not enough to support me.” Many student workers have raised concerns at the inability of low-income, first-generation, and minority students to take unpaid work, potentially leading to less representation for prospective students visiting Swarthmore with similar backgrounds.
According to Bock, many students have chosen to continue to host, regardless of the recent decision. Bock wrote to Voices, “We are grateful that many previous hosts have indicated they will continue with the program and support those who no longer choose to participate. We are confident hosting will continue to be an enriching and rewarding experience for all involved. Our survey of students suggested the vast majority of respondents would support this change in policy and culture, and we wholeheartedly agree.”
On September 10th, 2018, UUWS will launch its unionization drive, “to build a democratic union for all undergraduate workers at Swarthmore.” Building this union would require a majority of student workers to sign union cards. Once built, the union would allow students to negotiate fairer contracts. UUWS seeks to unionize to protect student workers from exploitation and hold the College accountable to its student employees. Among this potential union’s concrete goals are wage increases and “an independent body to review workplace grievances.”
Booker emphasizes the grassroots intentions of UUWS, stating, “We want it to be clear that this union will not ‘represent’ workers, but that it will be workers.”
In the meantime, UUWS is asking student workers to sign a “#NoFreeLabor Pledge,” stating that they will not host prospective students without pay and sharing any personal stories about exploitation or mistreatment working as College employees.
Click here to view the UUWS website and learn more about the campaign.
Lindsey Norward ‘18 contributed to this report.