Section: News

Community Advisors win fight for increased wages and lowered room costs

Cartoon by Alex Gilkey

In the weeks following the release of Kenyon’s revised plan for the 2020-21 academic year, the College’s Community Advisors (CAs) rallied together, successfully petitioning the administration for an increase in transparency and wages last Saturday, Aug. 1. 

As a result of their efforts, not only will CAs pay $1,000 less than the typical double room rate this academic year, but the position has been changed to Grade Level III compensation, increasing their hourly wage to $11.17 from the Grade Level II $9.92. 

“I feel really good about being moved to tier III, which I’m hoping lasts forever,” CA Alasia Destine-DeFreece ’21 said. “I’m happy about the additional $1,000 reduction, just because I really think that CAs need to be making a profit and not breaking even [or] paying to be on campus, because [CAs] are putting themselves at risk.”

The CAs’ revised terms come after a group of 25 CAs attempted to negotiate with the administration for free room and board. They also drafted a public statement and, hoping to form a coalition of support, sent the statement to student organizations who agreed to share it as well. However, once they received word from the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) of their revised contract, they called off the operation. 

The CAs had initially started discussing their options upon reading the College’s latest plan for the fall, which was released on July 14. They were surprised to discover that they were included in the population of students who would return to campus in the fall, a fact that they had not been made aware of prior to Kenyon’s announcement. Shortly afterwards, they were informed by the Office of Residential Life that they had four days to decide whether they would return to campus. Feeling confused and in need of answers, Samantha Schaffner ’21 reached out to several of her fellow CAs to discuss the matter, including Destine-DeFreece. 

Schaffner and Destine-DeFreece soon realized that putting together a group of CAs would be no easy task; not only was there no form of communication that included all CAs, but there was also uncertainty regarding who was and was not still a CA, as some had planned to study abroad this fall and yielded their positions.

Aside from those difficulties, many CAs simply did not know each other prior to organizing. 

“We’ve never all spoken to each other other than during training,” Destine-DeFreece explained. “[CAs] work with pretty much the same six to eight people on a regular basis. So it’s just really, really hard to make sure that everyone’s on the same page.” 

In conversations with one another, the group produced a number of questions regarding their exact duties during the pandemic.

“The email that [ResLife] sent us was really vague in terms of what our responsibilities would be,” Destine-DeFreece explained. “‘Would we be responsible for any cleaning of the dorms? Would we be responsible for duty in the same way? Will we go through as many buildings as we usually did on duty?’” 

The questions did not stop there — many felt as though the information regarding payment remained unclear, particularly for upperclass CAs, who, had they not chosen to return to campus, would not have to pay room and board for the fall semester. 

During a typical semester, CAs were paid for 18 hours per week at the standard Grade Level II rate of $9.92 per hour. They are also housed in a residence hall single for the price of a double — $1,000 less than the typical price. During the 2019-20 academic year, CAs were charged $2,735 for their rooms and $3,705 for board and student activities. Excluding hours documented during training and tax deductions, CAs made $2,857, putting them just $122 over the cost of their rooms. This year, however, CAs — who would have worked 18 hours per week at an hourly rate of $9.92 for the shortened, 14-week semester — would have made $2,500, putting them $210 shy of $2,710, the cost of a double this school year. Because their pay would not have covered all room and board, this semester, CAs would effectively be paying the College in order to continue working at a job that puts them at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. 

After compiling their questions into a list, the CAs requested a meeting with Director of Residential Life Jillian Yoder and Residential Life Coordinator Carl Mackey in hopes of finding answers.

Although the July 22 meeting — which included Dean of Campus Life Laura Kane as well as Yoder and Mackey — clarified CAs’ roles this academic year, when asked about the possibility of free room and board for CAs, Yoder said that the matter was beyond her control. 

“We understand that the numbers don’t lie — this may feel like a cost savings to you to not be on campus,” Yoder said during the meeting, a recording of which was obtained by the Collegian. “But at this point, if you are choosing to be on campus, this is the cost you will incur to be on campus and using campus resources.”  

Yoder did say, however, that the College would provide CAs with extra masks, an accommodation exclusive to CAs. She added that CAs would need to perform duty rounds more frequently, but would be responsible for fewer buildings, while their room assignments would remain the same. 

Despite receiving this new information, the CAs left the meeting feeling dissatisfied with Yoder’s answers regarding compensation. In search of a larger discussion, the CAs contacted President Sean Decatur and Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92, as well as the Office of Financial Aid and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI).

“We wanted to really make sure this is at the forefront of [the administration’s] minds, and make sure that they know this is an issue that we care about,” Schaffner said. “We thought that student voices needed to be heard in this process.”

In their email, the group broke down their projected compensation for the 2020-21 academic year, stating that returning CAs making roughly $2,232 before taxes would be charged $2,035 for room and $3,705 for board. This net loss — upwards of $3,508 — that would be charged to upperclass CAs would be one they could avoid by declining to work this semester. The group therefore emphasized the need for a reevaluation of CA compensation, particularly during the pandemic. 

“It does not make financial sense for associates to return to campus and work this year, especially while facing the real possibility of sickness, injury and death,” the CAs wrote. In order to cover the full cost of room and board, the CAs requested that the College provide them with a stipend equal to the cost.A number of CAs are international students, rendering the possibility of free room and board impossible, as international students can only receive payment via an on campus job or a grant from the College. Therefore, a stipend — effectively, a grant — was deemed the most equitable method of attaining these accommodations for all CAs. 

On July 29, the group of CAs met with Bonham and Yoder. The CAs did not have high expectations: The group entered the meeting assuming the administration would reject the idea of a stipend because of insufficient funding. 

Bonham immediately welcomed CAs’ questions and comments, but — speaking on behalf of the entire administration — turned down their proposal.

“I don’t believe that an additional amount of money is necessarily equitable when we have to consider what other student workers are making,” Bonham said.

While she didn’t think that wage changes were necessary, Bonham said that she did not feel this made CAs any less valuable to the College.

“I think that CAs are among the most important student workers on campus, given the expectations for the role,” she said. She added later that her resistance to increasing CAs’ wages was “not related to the College’s financial situation,” but a matter of balancing the College’s eclectic set of needs, and doing so “with integrity.”

CAs did not find this answer encouraging; to them, Bonham’s response represented a greater lack of appreciation for CAs.

“It’s not about the College finances — the College probably can afford it,” Crawford said. “It’s that it can pay us, but we don’t deserve to be paid more — that’s not something that we were expecting.”

As of a week before the decision deadline, the original plan still stood: CAs would either return to campus, facing unsafe living conditions and less than ideal pay, or forfeit their jobs — possibly for good — to stay safe at home. As part of a final effort, the group drafted a public statement.

“This lack of compensation will force over a quarter of CAs to defer or drop from their role, putting the burden of this semester’s community building and safety on new CAs,” the statement read. “We want to emphasize that in making our concerns public, we are risking retaliation and potential termination from the college. Therefore, we believe it necessary for Kenyon to create a pathway for CAs to collectively bargain with the college to ensure safe and just working conditions, with proper compensation that reflects hazardous nature of the job during a pandemic.” 

The CAs then shared their statement with a number of student organizations, and asked them to share it with the student body via email at noon on Saturday, Aug. 1 as a sign of solidarity. But on Saturday morning, mere hours before they planned to make their statement public, the group received a message from Yoder: CAs would be given Grade Level III compensation from then on, and housing rates $1,000 less than the price of a double. Content with the outcome, they withheld their statement and asked that the organizations do the same.

CAs’ increased wages — roughly $2,814 per semester — cover the entirety of their reduced $1,710 room fees. Their increased payment does not, however, cover the entirety of their $3,705 board fees and CAs will still owe the College $2,601 when all is said and done. 

A sizable number of CAs are satisfied with this adjustment, and felt it was a fair compromise. 

“We were concerned that they would only raise our wages during the pandemic,” CA Katherine Crawford ’22 said. “It was good to hear that we’ll be paid tier III for the indefinite future.”

Destine-DeFreece was careful to note, however, that this achievement came about through weeks of hard work and organizing by the CAs. 

“Organizing work is hard,” Destine-DeFreece said. “People are coming from different backgrounds, and you have to consider all of that as you move forward and try to make structural changes.”

Bonham appreciated the group’s hard work and self-advocacy. “I feel that we listened really carefully to the CAs, and that we were able to make adjustments to their compensation that were fair and reasonable,” Bonham said later in an interview with the Collegian. 

Despite reaching agreements about a wage increase, a handful of CAs still feel that there are strides to be made. 

“Some people are definitely disappointed because [the pay increase] is not as much as we wanted, and it doesn’t equal out the numbers,” Crawford said. “We asked for free room and board, and the pay increase doesn’t close that gap for how much it’ll cost to return to campus.”

According to Yoder, 29 of the 42 CAs originally hired for the fall are returning, meaning 13 — roughly 30 percent — have declined the invitation to return. Despite this, Yoder said that ResLife will have a sufficient number of CAs for the fall. 

Schaffner did not think this agreement was the end of the road for CAs, and said that she would like to see more communication between the students and the administration in the future.

“I don’t think this is the end of open communication about what our job looks like, and how we’re compensated for it,” Schaffner said. “[The] group chat has helped us to better connect about what our job responsibilities are, and I think the Office of Residential Life has been really open about getting our perspective about how we can do our jobs in this pandemic.”

Although, prior to organizing, Destine-DeFreece had decided she would defer for this semester, and the agreement did not change her mind, this did not dissuade her from being a leader in the CAs efforts.

“This [campaign] is something I cared about,” she explained. “This is something that we [CAs] all deserve as people who have had this job, and I wanted to see it through.”

News Editor Linnea Mumma contributed to reporting.


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