UPDATE: I’ve received a response! Half a year on and Western has deigned to state their position. It can be found here, and needless to say I continue to disagree.
At Western Washington University it is the common practice to hire students in order to provide campus services. Those hired are typically employed in service positions designed to support the functioning of the University, and they are required to attend training classes before beginning work. However, their training is unlike that which you would receive at other work places. Instead of being trained in the course of their employment, students are required to register for and complete academic credits for which they are not compensated. Because Western Washington University is requiring their student employees to train job specific skills without remuneration, I believe that the University is taking advantage of the law to the disadvantage of students.
A particular example is that of students hired on as Orientation Students Advisers. Their experience can be taken as generally representative, because although the particulars of exactly which duties an employee might be responsible for and the exact class in which they train those skills might change, the overall structure remains the same regardless of position. In the case of students hired on as Orientation Student Advisers, they are required to attend and complete the SAA 340 course as a condition of employment. While it is advertised as a minimum requirement for the job, it is not a minimum requirement for consideration, since students are hired in abeyance of its completion.[i] Furthermore, students who have already completed the class are required to retake it regardless of their previous status.[ii] The class itself is described as a leadership/training course and is noted to present material specific to the job skills and duties required as a Student Adviser, as per the Universities own materials. Since the class is for the benefit of the University as employer, I believe that the time that students spend training should be counted as hours worked and compensated.
It was with the question as to why students weren’t being compensated for training that I first approached the University. After being bounced around a number of offices without a response, I was eventually e-mailed by Mr. Jim DeWilde, the associate vice-president of Financial Aid, promising that he would look into it. This he did, and in a series of conversations I had with him, he noted that the issue I raised was novel, that Western Washington University had not previously considered it, and that it appeared to be common practice at Universities across the state and the country. However, he could not respond in full as to why it would be legal for student employees to be required to train without pay, and so he referred the question to the Office of the Attorney General at Western Washington University. Since then, I have heard little, and only after following up personally was I told that the University disagrees with my reasoning that students should be paid, and that they find nothing wrong with the current state of affairs. However, no specific reasoning was offered as to how this conclusion was reached, although it is promised.
On the other hand, contrary reasoning has already been laid out by the Washington State Deparment of Labor and Industry. As per their administrative policy, which can be found here, all hours worked must be paid and they are defined as “all hours during which the employee is authorized or required, known or reasonably believed by the employer to be on duty on the employer’s premises or at a prescribed work place.” Furthermore, “training and meeting time is generally interpreted to mean all time spent by employees attending lectures, meetings, employee trial periods and similar activities required by the employer … and shall be considered hours worked.” There are some few exceptions, but since attendance of the training class is not voluntary, and since the content of the course is directly related to the employees work, these exception do not seem to apply.
And, although Western Washington University has not said so, there are some hints that indicate that they too have seen a problem with their previous practice. For example, since I raised the issue, attendance at the training class is no longer described as a requirement for the position. Instead, employment (including training) is said to begin during the summer. The uncompensated training which many students have been required to participate in is no longer mentioned at all. Similarly, all mention of the SAA 340 class has been excised from the position advertisement and FAQ.
If Western Washington University is indeed changing it’s future policy to no longer require students to attend uncompensated training, then I applaud them. However, it leaves the question of what should be done about previous employees. I find it to be very unfair that students were required to train for work on their own dime. The work that they do is for the benefit of the University, and as their employer the University had a duty to fairly compensate them. By no means is this an accusation of intentional malfeasance. Simple oversights, with the momentum of tradition, can gain a certain longevity. However, for many students the money which they would have received if correctly compensated for their time training would make a serious difference in the state of their finances. I think that the University has an obligation to rectify past mistakes, intentional or not, in order to treat their students fairly.
[i] Interestingly enough, since April when I began work on this issue, the position description has been changed to exclude this phrasing. The earlier version which I am referencing can be found here: ORIGINAL OSA POSITION DESCRIPTION. The current version can be found here: NEW OSA POSITION DESCRIPTION.
[ii] This is another point which has been changed since April. Previously, in the FAQ hosted by Western Washington University about the position there was a statement that regardless of previous completion of the course, it would have to be retaken if the student had been hired for a new position. This made it impossible for students to proactively fulfill the requirement which had been advertised as a minimum qualification for application. The original FAQ can be seen here. This statement has been entirely removed in the current FAQ as can be seen here.