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Northwestern students demand better wages, working conditions

A group of Northwestern students participating in a summer work program are alleging that they are underpaid and overworked and are circulating a petition demanding changes from the university.

The university’s conference assistant program employs 20 mostly low-income students of color, the students said. It supports the university’s summertime events, including conferences and high school programs. In exchange for working approximately 20 hours a week, the assistants receive free housing, dining hall access and a grant of $1,650.

But seven weeks into the conference assistant program, the students say that they are underpaid for the long hours they work, sometimes in conditions they describe as unsafe. They also say their access to the dining halls is limited.

And most of the students didn’t receive their first paycheck until July 29 — six weeks after the program began. A handful are still awaiting notice for when they can pick up paper checks.

“As a student supporting myself financially, housing instability and food insecurity was a major concern for me going into the summer,” said Kyla Bruno, a sophomore. “Housing in Evanston is really expensive and with really limited options due to timing and the location on the other job, I decided to be a conference assistant for residential services under the impression of what I now know to be misleading, inaccurate information.”

Carlos Gonzalez, the university’s executive director of residential life, expressed regret about the delay in pay experienced by students, pointing to mistakes in the school’s “internal processes.”

“There are definitely take-aways that have informed how we change our own protocols, when hiring students, sort of the checks and the double checks. … I think that’s fueled an understandable amount of frustration from the students,” Gonzalez told the Tribune.

The student’s petition, which was first reported by the Northwestern Daily, called on the school to pay conference assistants an hourly wage of $19.88, hire more conference assistants, restructure nighttime duties, address barriers to accessing food, and create a system for reporting conference assistants ‘ concerns.

But Gonzalez estimated that between free housing, dining, and the stipend, the total “package” is worth over $8,000, a figure that he called “certainly very competitive” and a compensation model that is “common place among universities when it comes to summer programs .”

As of Friday, the petition, created with the Students Organizing for Labor Rights, had garnered more than 500 signatures, mostly from students and alumni.

Bruno said she applied for the job in order to seek alternative housing due to domestic violence in her household. She felt that the job description was “pretty ambiguous,” leading many of her fellow conference assistants to feel “betrayed and deceived” when the summer began.

The students said they work more than the 20 hours a week expected of them, with one conference assistant estimating she works closer to 50 to 60 hours a week. The students said they sometimes work 12-hour, on-call duty shifts, which are not counted as “active work” and therefore not paid for those on-call hours.

“The hours dedicated to those shifts are not fully reflected in our pay,” Bruno said.

A Northwestern spokesperson said conference assistants are scheduled for an average of 15.3 “active” hours of work per week, with approximately six hours of active work during 12-hour on-duty shifts. But the students said those 12-hour, on-duty shifts are assigned inconsistently.

The students said they also work nighttime rotation shifts, as they are on-call for lockouts and any issues that program or conference guests experience, and are expected to “patrol” the north side of campus.

The students who live on the south side of campus, said the nighttime patrolling can feel unsafe.

“Even if we don’t get a call, we’re walking all around campus alone at night and having experienced sexual assault in the past and knowing that I’m not the only (conference assistant) who has,” Bruno said. “I find the university forcing us to do these types of shifts and then not even considering it active work to be extremely insensitive.”

Sophomore Logan Fosu said she heard of women on campus being harassed while traveling across campus alone at night before this summer, including one of her friends.

“There’d be men following her and calling back at her and she had to break out into a little jog. It’d be the same as when we’re coming back from north campus … you’d be encountering large groups of guys who are just harassing us,” she said.

Fosu said that although the job contract included 24-hour duty rotations, it was never specified to her that the rotations would require “patrolling” the campus alone at night.

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When students raised safety concerns, Gonzalez said administrators reminded students of resources at their disposal such as utilizing golf carts, escorts from community security officers and blue lights placed around campus that automate calls to the police department.

The students also question the value of the meal plans they were granted as part of their payment package, as they are often scheduled through the limited hours dining halls are open. Fosu works at least one shift that conflicts with the limited dining hall hours each week.

“I just don’t eat,” Fosu said about those days. “There’s nothing else I really can do.”

When Fosu asked if conference assistants could be provided with meal grants to use at local restaurants and businesses, program leaders responded by distributing “cat cash,” which can be used at three locations on campus that also have restricted hours.

Bruno emphasized that because so many of the conference assistants’ are in precarious positions as low-income students, students escaping domestic violence, and more, they are left with limited choices and are thus more vulnerable to being exploited.

“I don’t even have the choice. I wouldn’t have anywhere else to live, like I can’t quit. And even to some of the others, in order for them to take summer classes and have an internship, they need affordable housing, which is not easy to come by,” Bruno said. “And so it’s incredibly disappointing that an institution with a $14.9 billion endowment is exploiting … particularly first (generation), low-income students, international students, students of colors, and others experiencing housing instability, food insecurity for cheap, underpaid labor.”

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