Campus Enterprises, which oversees most campus dining operations and employs over 1,200 students, recently sent out an email advertising new job openings. I quickly clicked past it; although I’ve previously applied to on-campus jobs, I plan to stay home this fall. However, not everyone is as privileged as I am. For many, going back to campus is the only option, due to factors such as employment availability, classes that require in-person instruction or unstable living situations.
While on-campus jobs can be a convenient option for many, there are certainly drawbacks. For most Campus Enterprises jobs, the starting hourly wage is $8.50, with some jobs that require specialty training such as Starbucks starting at $9.25. In North Carolina, the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, yet the living wage for an adult living in Raleigh, NC, who has no children or dependents, is $12.96.
Of course, on-campus jobs are designed to be part time. In fact, students are limited to working 20 hours per week during the academic year, but for some students, an on-campus job is their only source of income, and barriers such as transportation, time constraints or lack of qualifications could make finding an off-campus job incredibly difficult.
When campus closed down many of its operations following government and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines this past April, one of the last parts of campus to shut down was food service, and the dining halls have remained open in limited capacity since. The reasons for this are obvious: Students, no matter the circumstances, still need to eat.
If NC State has determined that the benefits of bringing students back to campus is worth the risk to students’ health and safety, it is the University’s obligation to protect those who are most vulnerable, which includes student workers who prepare and serve food to the campus community. The word “essential” literally means “absolutely necessary; extremely important,” and if we are going to consider student workers essential, we need to treat them as such.
This means, at a minimum, increasing the starting wage for all Campus Enterprises workers to a living wage as well as providing health insurance benefits and guaranteed paid sick leave should a student contract COVID-19 or need to care for a family member or household member who does.
Of course, the obvious next question is “how will we get that money?” This is a valid question. While it’s true that increasing wages is impossible to do without taking money away from somewhere else, we can and should fix this, and the first step is to consider how the money from tuition and fees is allocated.
It might be useful to reevaluate who we define as essential versus important. For example, those in the Chancellor’s office have important jobs — there is absolutely no denying that — yet sitting in an office is far less risky than serving food all day, and the former is less likely to suffer if their wages are reduced. If the administration is truly interested in serving students, they should consider giving up some of their incomes to help the students who make campus run on a daily basis.