SOLR calls for increased wages, meal access for conference assistants

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Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Conference assistants have not been paid for six weeks of work, while their contract lists biweekly payments, according to the petition.

Isabel Funk, Summer Editor

This story contains mentions of sexual assault and domestic violence.

When SESP freshman Kaylyn Ahn told her supervisor she felt uncomfortable walking across campus in the middle of the night unaccompanied because of previous experiences of sexual assault and rape, a Residential Services official told her the conference assistant position might not be best for her. 

“I have no stable form of housing. There was a lot of domestic violence in my household, so I rely on the school to provide my basic necessities,” Ahn said. “I took this job because I wanted free housing and food because Evanston is so expensive, and I had no other option.”

Two and a half weeks after starting the position, Ahn quit the conference assistant job because they felt unsafe, overworked and exploited. They had two days to move out of the residence hall and find alternative housing and their meal plan was immediately canceled. Ahn has not yet received compensation for the hours they worked before quitting. 

NU hired 20 conference assistants at the beginning of the summer to provide support for summer programming and Residential Services. The assistants receive a stipend pay of $1,650 for the summer quarter and are supposed to be scheduled for 200 hours. They also receive housing and a limited meal plan. 

But Ahn said she was scheduled for 250 hours and, because the position receives stipend pay, she would not receive additional pay for working overtime. They said after another student quit a few days into the job, Ahn and their coworkers had to pick up extra shifts.

Part of the role includes night duty, which are 12-hour shifts from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. when the assistants have to be on-call, primarily to help with lockouts. But while the conference assistants primarily live in the sorority quad on South Campus, Ahn said they frequently have to respond to calls on North Campus

“All of us are 18, 19 at the most, and … usually girls of color, lower income students,” Ahn said. “It’s so incredibly risky because you don’t know who’s calling and there’s nobody to check up on you, nobody to defend you. They give us no tools and they act like this is completely okay.”

Students Organizing for Labor Rights released a petition Tuesday calling on the University to pay conference assistants an hourly wage of $19.88 per hour, improve access to meal plans and create a system for addressing student concerns, among other demands. The petition had 378 signatures as of Thursday evening. 

“Students should not have to put themselves at risk of violence and sexual assault in order to keep a campus job,” the petition stated. “Northwestern expecting this of students shows it to be a greedy, exploitative organization focused on profits at the expense of its own students’ safety and wellbeing.”

SOLR organizer and SESP junior Neva Legallet said SOLR created the petition after speaking individually with three or four conference assistants whose concerns all echoed each other. Organizers then circulated a draft of the petition among the conference assistants, who were able to edit, comment and approve the petition before it was published.

“The fact that all of them pointed to the same issues and same patterns of being ignored and disregarded and disrespected, showed that these were ongoing, persistent issues,” Legallet said.

The petition also says that conference assistants have not been paid for six weeks of work, while their job description lists biweekly payments.

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Hilary Hurd Anyaso said most conference assistants should receive payment Friday.

“We regret the delay in processing payment to these valuable members of our summer conference operations and are working to quickly resolve the issue,” Anyaso said. “We are aware of the petition, but it has not yet been submitted to the University.

According to the petition, NU does not recognize day and night duty shifts as “active work” and therefore doesn’t calculate these shifts into pay. Many conference assistants are scheduled for 250-300 hours, the petition states, yet receive no additional pay. 

“It’s unacceptable that Northwestern is exploiting people who need food and housing for the summer and taking their labor, not compensating them for it and acting as though they should be grateful for receiving those very basic benefits,” Legallet said.

Ahn also said because of Sargent Dining Hall’s hours of operation, she would often go without food because of the timing of her shifts. They added that night shifts often prevented them from sleeping. Ahn repeatedly brought her concerns to supervisors and Residential Services staff and said she was “completely dismissed.”

After bringing their concerns to the Residential Services’ Director of Operation and Services Jenny Douglas, Douglas replied, “While we support the idea that food and shelter are basic needs that people have a right to, that right is not tied to being a student employee.” 

NU generates between $2 million and $5 million in revenue each summer, according to Residential Services. Ahn estimated that her hourly wage, given the number of hours she was scheduled to work, would have amounted to about $6.48 per hour.

“(The University) is not letting those conference assistants access those dining halls because it would rather exploit their labor instead of taking care of their basic needs and it just reinforces the pattern that we’ve seen from Northwestern over and over and over again,” Legallet said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated details about campus occupancy, previous years’ conference assistant programs and details of the conference assistant job description. The Daily regrets the errors.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @isabeldfunk

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