Politics & Government

UW Tacoma students unsure about raising campus minimum wage

Students at University of Washington’s Seattle campus pushed and protested for administrators to raise campus workers’ wages to $15 an hour.

But at the UW Tacoma campus, students are saying, “not so fast.”

A committee of seven UW Tacoma students expressed concern earlier this year that raising the minimum wage on campus could reduce the number of student jobs, or cause students’ hours to be cut.

UW Tacoma student leaders are now convening a task force and holding campus surveys and town halls to gauge how students feel about increasing wages for hourly workers on campus.

The UW Tacoma student body has yet to take a position on either of the proposed minimum wage increases on the November ballot in Tacoma. One of the measures, Proposition 1, would raise the minimum wage in Tacoma to $15 an hour starting in early December while the other, Proposition 1B, would increase the citywide minimum wage to $12 by 2018.

A spokesman for the university said it’s not clear whether UW Tacoma would be subject to either of the local wage proposals, but he said the university would discuss the matter in more depth should one of the measures pass.

There are about 300 hourly employees at UW Tacoma who make less than $15 an hour, university officials said, and roughly two-thirds of those are student employees who make less than $12 an hour.

Several students who spoke with The News Tribune this week said they feared that higher wages for hourly workers at UW Tacoma could increase students’ tuition or cause a rise in their other student fees.

Those fears were expressed even by some student employees who stand to benefit from a wage increase, such as Mae Oreiro, a 22-year-old senior who works as a student events assistant at UW Tacoma’s Center for Student Involvement.

“At first I was thinking, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a great idea, because I’m a student and it’s more money,’ ” said Oreiro, who said she makes $11 an hour. “But then I thought, if we raise it to $15 an hour, students are just going to have to pay way more, and we just don’t have that much money.”

Zvon Casanova, a student event coordinator who works next to Oreiro, said he also worries that fewer students will be able to work on campus if they are paid more. Casanova, who said he makes about $11.50 per hour and works between 12 and 15 hours a week, said he thinks the campus minimum wage of $11 an hour is fine for him and most students.

“Mainly, what I think, is when you raise the minimum wage here, obviously that will limit the opportunities for students to work,” said Casanova, a 21-year-old senior majoring in communications.

In April, UW Tacoma raised the minimum wage on campus to $11 an hour, which is higher than the statewide minimum wage of $9.47 per hour.

At that time, student members of the university’s Services and Activities Fee Committee discussed concerns that raising the minimum wage to $15 — as UW Seattle officials were then considering — could reduce the number of student jobs on campus or cause cuts to students’ hours.

“In order to accommodate that increase, the number of positions would probably be reduced, or the number of hours that would be available could be reduced,” said UW Tacoma senior Kathy Nguyen, who served as vice chairwoman of the committee last year and is now its interim chairwoman.

In Seattle, UW officials decided last week that they would raise campus workers’ wages to $15 an hour to comply with Seattle’s $15 minimum wage ordinance, even if it remained unclear whether state agencies were obligated to follow the local law. That decision came after student workers at UW Seattle protested earlier this year for higher wages.

Following the announcement by the university’s Seattle campus, UW Tacoma Chancellor Mark Pagano sent a campuswide email last week explaining that no such increase is planned as of yet at UW Tacoma, partly due to student opposition to the idea.

“...UW Tacoma students do not desire to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour at this time,” Pagano wrote, citing the concerns raised by the Services and Activities Fee Committee as well as the different “market conditions” of Tacoma compared to Seattle.

“Costs of living are lower and overall average wage rates are lower,” Pagano wrote.

Still, UW Tacoma student leaders want to get a better grasp on how the entire student body feels about the minimum wage issue, said Bronwyn Clarke, finance director for the Associated Students of the University of Washington Tacoma.

To that end, Clarke formed a student task force to discuss the minimum wage issue and conduct formal surveys of the student body. That task force met for the first time Wednesday, and will make policy recommendations to the university administration by the end of the year, she said.

“The fact of the matter is we don’t know what students think right now — we haven’t had a formal survey,” said Clarke, who also served on the student fee committee last year that discussed concerns about a $15 minimum wage.

At least a few students think that out of fairness, the university’s campus in Tacoma should raise workers’ wages to match those at UW Seattle.

Tyshawn Ward, a senior majoring in psychology at UW Tacoma, said that while Seattle has an especially high cost of living, Tacoma is getting more expensive, too.

Partly for that reason, he said the UW Tacoma should also consider having a $15 minimum wage for workers in the future. The $15 minimum wage at UW Seattle takes effect in January 2017 to mirror the city’s minimum wage law.

“It should be at least close to $15, if you’re not going to put it at $15, so it’s somewhat fair,” Ward said.