A new student group called Peer Advocates for Working Students (PAWS) has been formed to educate student workers about their rights as employees of the University and to advocate for their fair treatment.
The group, which is funded by the Resource Center, is currently made up of co-leaders Emma Rose Borzekowski ’19 and Tay-Shaun Lawrence ’19 along with peer advocates Julio Evans ’21, Dani Jewell-Tyrcha ’21, and Tammy Shine ’21. The initiative grew out of a working group started by the Wesleyan United Student/Labor Action Coalition (USLAC), a student group dedicated to organizing and fighting for the fair treatment of workers, both at the University and around the world.
The working group was formed in response to student worker complaints and a lack of a centralized support system for student workers. USLAC has worked in the past with cafeteria workers and custodial staff, but members wanted to explore ways to support the large population of students on campus who work. Borzekowski wanted to address problems she heard about from friends.
“I had a friend once who thought she was supposed to be getting a raise,” she said. “She was really confused and wanted my advice because she knew I did stuff on campus regarding labor issues. I started thinking about this problem, that there are a lot of students on this campus who are experiencing a wide range of issues.”
Other issues that inspired the group’s creation were students working many hours for little pay, students receiving no job description at the beginning of their employment, students being misgendered or harassed, and students being afraid to approach their supervisors about these issues. The common thread they found was that many student workers had no one to go to with complaints and felt unsupported if they did.
“The current state for…student workers is that they have no platform to voice their concerns, opinions, and issues,” Evans wrote in an email to the Argus. “They are forced to work and do as [they are] told without questions mainly because there is no one to back them up or they are unclear on what they can and cannot do.”
Borzekowski is also dissatisfied with this culture of student employment on campus, and the seeming lack of feasible ways to address their concerns.
“I don’t like the distinction between ‘student’ and ‘worker’ because students here are workers, but…we don’t have an established culture of collective action and worker power,” she said. “So we were thinking of ways we could build to that, that we could build to having students conscious of their rights as workers, conscious of what they deserve on the job and be there to help them realize that.”
In forming the group, Borzekowski and Lawrence wanted to adapt and combine some of the practices of several advising roles that already exist on campus, for example that of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART). They think of the PAWS advocates as serving important roles both as resources and supportive figures for student workers and peers whom workers can contact with anything related to their jobs on campus.
Lawrence wrote about what he hopes PAWS will provide student workers throughout the year. The program is technically classified as a pilot program this year, so members will be soliciting advice and information from student workers so they can focus on what needs to be done.
“Some issues PAWS hopes to address are pay scales at…different areas on campus, letting student workers know they have rights and informing them about what they are, as well as having managers be upheld to…supervisor expectations,” Lawrence said.
PAWS will be at the student group fair, the resource fair, and the student employment fair and will be hosting workshops throughout the year to educate student workers on their rights as University employees. Peer advocates will also be holding weekly office hours that student workers can attend to get advice about issues they are having in the workplace.
The group also wants to gather information on student employment on campus because as it stands, there is no count of how many students are working on campus. Borzekowski spoke about conversations she had with the Office of Financial Aid in which employees of the Office gave figures that could provide a better idea of how many students are working.
“The latest numbers that I have…is that 42 percent of Wesleyan students are federal work study eligible, and 38 percent of students on Wesleyan’s campus receive at least part of that federal work study,” she said.
There are many student workers who are not eligible for federal work study, though, so the percentage of students who work on campus is likely higher than 38 percent.
The group has secured funding from the Resource Center to cover two hours of work per week for each student worker, but they hope to grow and secure more funding because advocates will most likely be doing more than two hours of work per week to support the group.
Jewell-Tyrcha spoke about their motivation to join PAWS over the summer.
“I’ve worked on campus since I started here my first year because I need to to be able to afford tuition and living costs, and as a trans student I’ve faced discrimination,” they said. “This is what served as a catalyst to get involved in this project, I want to protect other students in similar situations.”
The group participated in training that occurred the week before move-in day. Members studied different scenarios that they could be confronted with, met with administrators in different offices on campus to discuss the formal avenues that students can take to address employment issues, and even met with a group of Stewards from Local 217, a union that advocates for hospitality workers in Connecticut. Local 217 is a part of Unite Here, a nationwide union of workers in the hospitality industry.
“The Stewards perform a job that we want to model PAWS after, but in the context of being in school,” Borzekowski said about the meeting with Local 217. “So we could learn what they do…and what skills they employ and to think a little bit about how, even though we don’t have the structure of a union or the power that comes with having a union, how we can still mobilize and take action around issues of injustice in the workplace.”
Borzekowski also highlighted the inherent power that student workers at the University have. She hopes PAWS will harness this power to both advocate for the fair treatment of individual workers and organize to change the systemic treatment of student workers on campus.
“Wesleyan employs a ton of student workers,” she said. “They have hundreds of students doing minimum wage jobs that if they tried to find other labor for they probably couldn’t fill…Wesleyan only works because students do. If students realize that and recognize their own power, there’s a lot that they can do.”
William Halliday can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org