On Monday, Community Advisors (CAs) and other members of the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) met with President Sean Decatur and Vice President for Student Affairs Celestino Limas to discuss recent changes to the CA position. In the meeting, CAs, Decatur and Limas agreed that they would delay the CA selection process until CAs could have their questions answered in an open forum, and Decatur and Limas agreed to produce a clear statement outlining the legal rights of CAs as well as a three-year impact study.
This agreement comes as student workers at Kenyon, including CAs, are in the midst of a fight for union recognition. Student farmers have recently authorized a strike with K-SWOC. Decatur, however, told the Collegian that the changes to the CA position are unrelated to the ongoing union fight. Some CAs disagree.
“I think it’s clear that if they’re making negative changes in the midst of this, it can only be seen as in response to the organizing we’re doing,” CA Charlie Muller ’24 said.
CAs were first informed of the changes to their position — which include a switch from an hourly wage to a stipend and the reinstatement of apartment CAs — in a Jan. 21 email from Limas, and since then have raised concerns about the implications of this change, including the potential for exploitation, questions over whether the stipend would be tied to inflation and the implications on the CAs’ legal status as employees. They discussed these and other concerns in the meeting with Limas and Decatur.
CAs discussed concerns that financial impacts of the stipend have not been fully explained. Decatur committed to providing a three-year impact analysis, which will look at outcomes for a range of students. It is unclear whether this is the “stress test” referred to by Vice President Limas in the initial announcement to CAs.
Since the change was announced, Limas has told K-SWOC members that CAs are not and never have been considered employees. However, in the 2021 CA Handbook, CAs are referred to several times as “employees” and “workers.”
According to Muller, Decatur affirmed in the meeting that CAs have the rights of employees, including the right to organize. “Decatur affirmed that we had those protections, and committed to providing us a very clear statement about our legal rights and legal protections, under federal and state labor laws,” he said.
Several CAs raised the concern that the change in compensation will impact their standing under the Fair Labor Compensation Act (FLSA). According to CA April Murphy ’22, if CAs are switched to a stipend, they could be considered FLSA exempt. This exemption would prevent them from getting job benefits, including overtime. Additionally, CAs being FLSA-exempt employees would mean they would not be protected by labor standards like the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which gives employees the right to organize.
Murphy suspects that this change was motivated by the union fight. “This is a clear change to our FLSA exemption status, and honestly it just came off as an attempt to push us out of the bargaining unit, which is illegal during an NLRB election,” they said.
However, Decatur said that he does not anticipate that the rights of CAs will change. “From the College’s perspective, changing the mode of payment doesn’t change any of the rights that student workers have,” he told the Collegian. “There was a request to have a clear statement that addresses the specific concerns that folks brought there, and we said we would bring that back to folks as well.”
Despite these claims, Decatur told the Collegian on Wednesday that the College’s position that student workers do not have the right to organize has not changed.
However, Murphy is convinced that this is a change to CAs’ status. “Both [Decatur and Limas] insisted that CAs have always been FLSA exempt, but that’s really not the case,” she said.
One solution CAs raised in the meeting was a possible shift to a hybrid model of compensation, where CAs would receive base stipend pay and further hourly compensation if they worked more than a certain number of hours in a given week. This would have benefits of a stipend, and would also allow CAs to receive additional compensation in weeks when they worked more than normal, and would allow international students to be compensated for more than the 20-hour week, an issue raised last semester.
Muller emphasized that the current, hourly system is imperfect, and that in many ways a stipend could be an improvement. However, he went on to say that a hybrid system would account for irregularities including the CA training week where they work unusually high hours, or when a CA picks up an extra duty shift. “Without a timesheet, there’s a real risk of not getting paid for a lot of the time we spend on the job,” he said.
Decatur told the Collegian that he will address the question of a hybrid system.
Ultimately, Murphy and Muller were both optimistic about the concessions offered in the meeting. “I really hope that this is a turning point for the administration, and that they start siding with student workers and listening to student workers,” Murphy said.
Despite these agreements, though, Decatur asserted that the College has not changed its position. “The College’s position with respect to the petition for recognition of a student worker union has not changed in any way,” he said.