5C RAs Lobby for Better Support, Compensation

A resignation letter from an anonymous Pomona College Resident Advisor criticizing Pomona's recent treatment of RAs has been circulating on social media for the last few weeks, and was republished on Facebook by the Associated Students of Pomona College on April 9.  

“I am resigning not because I do not love my job or have the capacity to perform it,” the letter read, “but rather because throughout this year, and in the past, you all have shown that you do not value us or acknowledge our intersectional identities and struggles when making decisions and responding to our needs or your mistakes.”

Addressed to three Pomona deans and residence life coordinators, the letter has prompted discussions among students about institutional support for RAs across the Claremont colleges.

According to the letter, Pomona RAs have been consistently underpaid. This year, an unforeseen tax burden caused by a change in RAs’ employment status “nullified” the pay raise they received in the fall. The raise was necessary, the RA wrote, because of the “increase in room and board, minimum wage, cost of living, and responsibilities.”

Miriam Feldblum, Pomona dean of students and one of the letter’s addressees, said that Student Affairs has been trying to increase RAs’ stipends for several years.

Pomona RAs received a credit on room and board until the early 2000s, when Student Affairs realized that students on financial aid were “disincentivized to become RAs because they didn’t get money in their pocket,” Feldblum said.

The college began to pay RAs by cash stipend as well as by a partial housing credit. The stipend increased each year with room and board, and by 2009, RAs were receiving $5,000 in cash, making them the highest paid student employees on campus.

In 2009, in light of the recession, Student Affairs decided to fix the stipend despite increasing room and board costs. A few years later, Student Affairs increased the RAs’ stipend to $5,500, while continuing to work for a more significant raise, according to Feldblum.

By the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year, Student Affairs was able to increase the cash stipend to $7,800, or half the annual cost of room and board. In addition, RAs receive $4,527 in room credit, half the annual cost of room, for a total of about $12,300 in compensation each year.

However, the pay raise coincided with a change in RAs’ employment status. Up until fall 2016, RAs were considered hourly wage workers, and received W-2 tax forms instead of the 1099 form.

But because RAs receive a housing credit and stipend tied to that credit, instead of an hourly wage, they are not considered “employees” by the Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act. The Field Operations Handbook (10b24) reads: “Students serving as residence hall assistants or dormitory counselors, who are participants in a bona fide educational program, and who receive remuneration in the form of reduced room or board charges ... are not employees.”

The tax implications of the RAs’ new non-employee status were unexpectedly significant.

“Some students “ended up owing enough in taxes that the raise was essentially nullified and therefore being underpaid for their labor," the anonymous letter from a Pomona RA read.

Autumn Martin PO ’19, who is an RA this year, agreed that the unforeseen tax implications have had particularly negative consequences for low-income students.

“Low-income students have budgeted their money in a way that makes sense to them according to family needs and self needs,” said Martin, who identifies as low-income. “To have to pay the government taxes that we weren’t expecting to take out of our savings or what we give to our family each month ... If we’d known, we could have planned for it.”

Feldblum said that although Student Affairs and the business office recognized that the change in RAs’ employment status would have tax implications and that they alerted students to this at the beginning of the year, they did not anticipate the extent of the tax burden.

"There could have been much better communication about the tax implications. We didn’t try to model it out, and that’s something that we should have done,” she said.

Both Martin and the anonymous letter-writer were frustrated by the amount of time it took the college to respond to the RAs’ tax concerns. RAs initially raised concerns in February, but didn’t receive a response until early April.

“If we raise a concern at a time when it is most critical, it does not mean get back to us when there’s a week left to do your taxes,” Martin said.

Martin said that it is “institutional violence” when a “majority of employees that you're ignoring are low-income, undocumented, and other marginalized identities.”

Martin said that marginalized and low-income students are likely to become RAs because “passion for community and political problems comes from being affected by those things.” She added that being an RA is “a labor intensive job. If you didn’t need the money, I’m not sure that you’d be interested.”

RAs at Pitzer have also run into unforeseen tax burdens.

Pitzer RA Arman Ahmed PZ ’19 said that RAs are underpaid. They receive $172 every two weeks plus a housing credit, which Ahmed says adversely affects students on financial aid because the credit counts as income. He added that Pitzer is considering providing RAs with course credit instead of a pay raise, which is also problematic for students on financial aid, who can only take 32 units before graduating.

Kirsten Carrier, Pitzer’s director of Residence Life, affirmed Pitzer’s commitment to engaging with RAs in an email toTSL

“Oftentimes feedback from our students and RAs have led to changes in the Residence Life program, positions, and operations that improved services to our students,” she wrote.

Claremont McKenna College RA Parker Mallchok CM ‘17 said she “didn’t choose this job for the compensation” but for "personal growth." CMC RAs are compensated with full room and board credit. 

"Whenever I asked for help, it was always very freely given to me. When a situation was emotionally taxing, I felt like I was supported by the Dean of Students staff as well as by my fellow RAs," Mallchok said.

Ace Bansal HM ’17 has had a similar experience at Harvey Mudd College. HMC does not employ RAs; instead, they have proctors, who serve a similar role on campus.

"Being a proctor has been the best decision I've made," Bansal said.

However, Bansal acknowledged that challenges have come with the role, especially in the form of emotional demands.

“The proctors are a very comfortable way for students to get help,” Bansal said, “and I think that’s one of the things that makes the system awesome. What’s unfortunate is when that’s the only system they feel comfortable going to.”

Nonetheless, Bansal said that the administration has been supportive.

“I’ve had a very difficult semester. Willie Zuniga was my co-proctor,” Bansal said. Zuniga passed away in February. “And I’ve felt supported throughout that entire process…I’m very appreciative of that.”

On April 10, the Pomona business office sent a specialized letter to RAs explaining the specifics of their compensation. Pomona has contracted with a local accountant with whom RAs can meet at no cost, and has invited RAs to request an emergency grant/loan from Pomona’s fund if they need financial assistance meeting unforeseen tax burdens.

However, the anonymous letter-writer wrote that this solution was inconsistent with Pomona’s “commitment for students to graduate without debt.”

Feldblum noted that grants are available as well as loans.

“For someone who’s not on financial aid, who doesn’t have the money now but actually has the means, it may be appropriate to give them a loan,” she said. “Usually, emergency grants are reserved for students on financial aid.”

“I’m hoping that it will open up continued dialogue,” Christopher Waugh, Pomona's dean of campus life and one of the administrators the letter addressed, said of the letter.

Steven Jubert, associate dean of campus life and director of residential life, said that RAs’ summer training is “centered around how to support and recognize where marginalized students might come from, and how being here at Pomona can impact them in many different ways. So it’s important to us that that’s a high consideration.”

Meanwhile, Scripps College RAs have been on strike since April 13. In a letter to Scripps President Lara Tiedens, the RAs outlined the purposes of the strike: “To put pressure on Scripps to fulfill its obligation to student, to demonstrate the extent of the labor we perform on campus, and to break with our normal routine in recognition of the impact of Tatissa’s passing and illustrate our frustration with Scripps’ continued inaction.” RA Tatissa Zunguze SC '18 passed away last month.

Pitzer RAs have issued a statement of solidarity with Scripps RAs, as well as with the anonymous Pomona RA who resigned.

“These actions are not isolated from one another,” the statement read. “Rather it connects back to unfair labor conditions endured by student-workers and the dismissal of barriers faced by marginalized students … We are not going to be bystanders as student employees are neglected by the institutions they serve.”

Julie Tran contributed reporting to this article.