Blake Ashby/Pioneer Log

Phonathon student workers demand higher wages, strike

Lewis & Clark phonathon student workers went on strike during the Day of Giving on March 4, after the administration declined to negotiate their wages. The Day of Giving is an important day for Phonathon workers as their job is to call alumni, parents and friends of the college to secure donations for LC. In the past weeks, they have demanded higher wages and organized under the name “The United Student Workers of Lewis & Clark.”

The phonathon workers sought to publicize their cause and gain support from the student body on Feb. 26 with a rally outside Templeton Campus Center. The following day, the Associated Students of Lewis & Clark (ASLC) passed a resolution in support of student workers. 

It urged the “establishment of an ad-hoc committee dedicated to student workers’ rights and the development of a Student Workers Union, which will stand in solidarity with non-student workers here on Campus.” 

Phonathon workers wrote the resolution, and ASLC Senator Cas Mulford ’23 submitted it to the Senate.

“The main goal of it is to keep their momentum going and to show that all the student workers and all of the students, ASLC included, support students and their right to unionize,” Mulford said.

The phonathon workers do not plan to officially unionize through the National Labor Relations Board, however with the help of the ASLC ad-hoc committee, hope to continue to organize through the United Student Workers of LC.

The resolution was sent out to the entire study body, as well as several key administrators, on March 2. 

The following day, phonathon workers met with these administrators, including members of Institutional Advancement, Annual Giving and Student Life, to discuss their concerns. The administration plans to address the issues brought up through better education on current policies, as well as new measures to protect students from hurtful interactions.

 No commitment was made to meet the workers’ demands for higher wages. 

Jamie Strickler ’20, a student supervisor at phonathon,  explained their decision to strike on the Day of Giving after this meeting.

“Both at the beginning and end of the meeting, we made it clear that if they would not agree to ANY form of wage increase, we would escalate,” Strickler said via email.

The phonathon program is run by the Annual Giving office, which is housed in Institutional Advancement. According to Director of Public Relations Roy Kaufmann, phonathon raised $240,861 in 2019 and contributed about 1% of the $25.2 million total funds raised in Institutional Advancement in 2019. 

There are three work study positions at the phonathon: callers, lead callers and student supervisors. Workers must commit to a minimum of 9.75 hours a week, the equivalent of three evening shifts. Currently, the hourly rate is $12.75 for callers (25 cents above Portland’s minimum wage), $13.25 for lead callers and $14 for supervisors. Phonathon workers receive additional incentives like a $1 bonus for each donation they obtain on credit card. 

Workers earn anywhere from an additional $50 to $100 per semester on average, according to Julie Newsome, senior associate director of Annual Giving. 

Strickler said via email that “these bonuses do not translate to an equitable and livable wage.” 

A “living wage” typically refers to the minimum income necessary for workers to meet their basic needs, such as food, rent and healthcare, and is typically calculated with the assumption that one is working full time. 

Emma Ray-Wong ’20, a student supervisor, said many workers are unable to cover their expenses despite having multiple jobs at LC.

“I think people definitely assume that the jobs that student workers have aren’t their livelihood because I guess it’s somewhat common here for your parents to pay for your rent and stuff,” Ray-Wong said. “But there are also a lot of students who don’t have that and have to work really hard not only to pay rent but also for tuition and expensive books. It builds up.”

In their fight for higher wages, Phonathon workers first presented their demands to their immediate supervisor, Assistant Director of Annual Giving Shelby Danzer, on Feb. 20. They were in communication with administrators at Annual Giving and Institutional Advancement thereafter.

Since last fall, the phonathon workers have had support from the Portland Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a member-run union that has aided them with negotiating tactics. Ray-Wong said that the IWW encouraged their group to expand their reach at the Feb. 26 rally. 

“It started as a phonathon thing, and as we talked with people from IWW, they also helped show us that this is a greater student worker movement and … that it would help the non-student workers as well, which is a huge goal of ours,” Ray-Wong said.

Cameron Crowell ’17, a delegate to the Portland IWW, spoke at the rally. 

“The way that you win is through direct action,” Crowell said. “It’s through you and your coworkers coming together and using your power that makes this university run. Without your labor, this university would not run and that is your leverage. That is your power.”

At the rally, phonathon workers voiced their grievances. They believe that they are not being paid fairly for their emotional labor, citing the personal attacks they face when making calls to alumni, parents and friends of the college.

Ochuko Akpovbovbo ’21, a phonathon caller, attested to this.

“I’ve gotten a lot of really aggressive interactions, when people find out like I’m Nigerian, I’m black, I’m international,” Akpovbovbo said.

Workers are not required to continue a conversation with someone who is being disrespectful or aggressive. Ray-Wong said that even though callers are allowed to hang up the phone, they can still endure emotional labor. 

According to Newsome, the office was not aware of these concerns prior to receiving the workers demands on Feb. 20. 

“The well-being of our students is always a top priority,” Newsome said via email. “So is providing both classroom and ‘real world’ knowledge and experience. Phonathon student-workers gain applicable and practical skills that will help them be prepared for life after college. They learn how to have a conversation with anyone – those of diverse ages, backgrounds, and experiences. They learn how to communicate clearly and advocate for support. With that, they also learn crucial life skills of handling rejection and occasionally encountering rude people on the phone.”

Newsome said that the phonathon manager (Danzer), student supervisor and lead callers are available to support the caller. Yet Strickler said that most of the responsibility falls on student supervisors to “keep up moral.”

Akpovbovbo, along with many other callers, said that she keeps working at phonathon because of the well-established support system.

“The reason why people stay isn’t necessarily because of the money, it’s because of the community that gets formed there,” Akpovbovbo said. “Jamie (Strickler) didn’t have to come to my room after work when I was crying when people were rude and racist on the phone (but she did).”

Phonathon workers repeatedly reference these instances of emotional labor in demanding higher wages.

Since the rally, phonathon workers have faced mixed responses from students and administration alike. 

Eliza Auchincloss ’20 attended the rally in solidarity with the phonathon workers.

“I think it’s important that people, who might be more privileged and are able to pay their tuition without working, also see the other side that’s not really talked about at Lewis & Clark as much as I think needs to be recognized,” Auchincloss said.

Ben Glick ’20, a student worker at Digital Initiatives, had a different take. While he considers himself to be universally pro-worker, he thinks that non student workers at LC should get raises before students, who are temporary workers. 

 “If this comes to a vote and it comes to most of all student workers, I will be voting no on this proposition,” Glick said.

He argued that the school already often pays student workers above minimum wage and that this pay comes from a finite budget.

“Even if you get all of this money to be increased, the school will just have no choice but to hire less people, because again, they have a limited operating budget,” Glick said. 

Students can have LC work study and/or federal work study. The school’s federal work study amount does not increase based on Oregon’s minimum wage. According to Kaufmann, the college submits a budget request to Congress each year and, for at least the last seven years, has not received the full amount requested.

Wages are set through a collaborative process between Human Resources (HR) and the department that is hiring. The department sets a wage rate within a range that is provided by HR and based on many factors, including the rates for comparable positions at LC. While there are no caps on how much students can make, the range for most student positions is between $12.50 and $13.50 per hour. 

These constraints were reflected in the institutional response. After receiving the Feb. 20 demands, Vice President of Institutional Advancement Josh Walter said via email to the workers that the college would not be “providing raises at the level demanded or on the timeline demanded.” 

“The wages you receive are fair, and the opportunities you have to earn incentives (like bonuses) is unique among Lewis & Clark student employees,” he said.

Additionally, Walter said that their wages will be raised when Oregon minimum wage goes up on July 1. He said that the college does not negotiate wages with its employees in this manner, although he was glad to be able to sit down with the phonathon workers and hear about their experiences at the March 3 meeting.

Stephen LeBoutiller ’00, the director of Annual Giving, was also present in this meeting.

“While right now we’re focused on having direct conversations with our Phonathon students, I am concerned about the thinking and process that led to a resolution with such sweeping and misleading statements,” LeBoutillier said.

Members of the administration claimed that several of the statements in the ASLC resolution were unsubstantiated. 

In a statement to The Pioneer Log, Walter and Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students Robin Holmes-Sullican said, “We will take a hard look at compensation for Phonathon students and other student-employees to make sure that equitable and fair wages are being paid across campus. Lewis & Clark’s policy on student employment is to provide as many students as possible with valuable work experience through the performance of necessary jobs on campus, while providing students with assistance in funding their educational expenses.”

As was demonstrated with the Day of Giving strike, phonathon workers plan to continue to escalate until administrators come to the negotiation table. 

Additional reporting by Lexie Boren, Amelia Eichel and Ariel McGee

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