JMU Student Employment

Despite wage increases, JMU struggles with attracting enough student employees.

When Virginians awoke to a new year, some also awoke to a pay raise.

The month’s start saw the state’s minimum wage bump up from $9.50 to $11 an hour, much like the rise from $7.50 that occurred last May. The recent law that’s creating these changes lays out further increases; 2023 will see the minimum wage expand to $12, then $13.50 in 2025 before ending at $15 in 2026.

Former Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who signed the legislation during his tenure, tweeted that it was “the long overdue pay raise [Virginians] deserve.” However, some consider it lacking.

“Great news, but 2026 is a long ways away and inflation isn’t stopping,” wrote one commenter under the tweet. Another added: “Poverty wages will continue. The minimum wage should be $15 today, not in 5 years.”

Individual vs. business

While some find issues with the timeframe, others want to halt it completely.

According to The Richmond Times-Dispatch, this week saw a Republican effort to overturn the minimum wage legislation in the Virginia Senate. Democrats denied it, with Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Va.) pointing out how minimum wage hasn’t been adjusted to inflation increases since the 1970s. 

Inflation — which alters the purchasing power of currency — can be partially to blame for the minimum wage becoming more antonymous to a living wage. It rocketed to historic highs during the pandemic — at 7% in December  — lessening how much a minimum wage can afford.

In 2021, 61% of Americans supported raising the federal minimum wage to $15, according to data cited by The Balance. Proponents suggest that higher wages reduce inequality, encourage productivity and worker retention, and boost the economy by allowing for more spending. 

Meanwhile, opponents often argue that such increases in spending would lead to an increase in prices, though recent research is finding that to be generally exaggerated — in fact, according to The UpJohn Institute, raising wages incrementally allows for prices to stay low.

Still, the Republicans leading this week’s opposition consider the minimum wage hike as detrimental. 

“This isn’t going to lead to people making more money,” Senator Mark Peake, quoted by The Richmond Times-Dispatch, said. “It’s gonna lead to more small businesses closing and shutting down.”

Jack Kearney, the owner of The Thomas House Restaurant in nearby Dayton, strongly supports the increases as a way to help people escape poverty but understands it signifies challenges for his business:

“Obviously we are going to have additional labor costs involved,” he said, quoted by WHSV. “Having the food prices rising so much over the last year, it’s most likely going to affect the menu price.”

However, many Virginian employers were already paying above the wage increase of May 2021 as a way to stay competitive, according to Harrisonburg-Rockingham Living Wage Campaign’s Ramona Sanders, quoted by The Daily News-Record.

Accordingly, Harrisonburg’s median hourly wage was $17.98 in May 2020, as found by The Bureau of Labor Statistics — significantly higher than the $11 wage now legally required. 

For JMU, that means competition.

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Less certainty for student workers

At the university, budgeting hasn’t been an obstacle in raising wages for student employees.

“JMU has always been fantastic on giving us as much institutional employment money as we can hire students,” Amber Shifflett, the student employment manager for the university, said. “We were able to get more work-study dollars this year through the federal government.”

Instead, the bigger issue is finding students to spend it on. 

On average, the school employs around 250 federal work-study students and 3,000 institutional-employment students though, she said, this year the numbers have most likely diminished. 

“We’ve always been in competition with off-campus employers,” Shifflett said, noting how surrounding businesses are able to afford to pay their employees more. On top of that, the university doesn’t provide the same benefits as off-campus jobs and limits student workers to 20 hours of work a week. 

“Back home … I could be putting in 40 hour weeks if I wanted to,” Ali Egan, a student worker at JMU’s The Union, said. “But it’s not necessarily an option here.”

This isn’t to say that everyone is paid minimum wage at JMU, with some of the school’s departments choosing to pay more than that, Shifflett said. Student workers also benefit from proximity to campus and networking opportunities. However, the recent minimum wage  increase still didn’t resolve the discrepancy between off- and on-campus pay.

“The Union is a great place to work because they really take into account our schedules and recognize that we are students,” Egan’s coworker, Abby Hartzog, said. “That being said though, I do have a second [off-campus] job so I can pay my rent.”

Legally, students aren’t necessarily guaranteed the state minimum wage. The Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) maintains that universities can pay 85% of the minimum wage to registered students and only 75% to those in a “Student-Learner Program.”

Asked about future raises for student workers, Shifflett expressed less optimism.

“It is possible that student employees across the state would not be included in future minimum wage increases,” Shifflett said. “It’ll be up to JMU to make the decision.”

Legislative challenges

Despite Republican’s recent failure, opponents of these increases may still have an opportunity to stall them. 

According to the law’s language, the minimum wage increase after 2024 isn’t guaranteed, as it needs to then be reenacted by the future General Assembly. Depending on who’s in charge, this could mean that the wage doesn’t rise past $12.

But, at least for now, minimum wage earners have something to look forward to.

Contact Filip De Mott at demottfs@dukes.jmu.edu. He is a media arts and design and international affairs senior.