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University of Iowa law assistants argue for better pay

'We think we're worth more than they're paying us'

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IOWA CITY — Although University of Iowa officials last fall said the campus was upping its minimum wage to $8.20 an hour to remain competitive with higher Johnson County rates, some UI student employees say they’re still making $7.25 an hour.

Law research assistants, according to the university, are salaried at $1,087.50 a semester — or $2,175 per academic year. The positions are quarter-time appointments equal to 150 hours a semester or 300 hours a year.

That means the research assistants make $7.25 an hour, about 13 percent below the UI’s stated minimum wage, about 26 percent below the current Johnson County minimum wage, and about 39 percent below what minimum wage is to be in January.

“We don’t feel they should have this lower pay grade,” said Landon Elkind, a UI graduate student, doctoral candidate and president of COGS — the UI graduate student union. “We think we’re worth more than they’re paying us.”

But university officials stressed the research assistants aren’t hourly employees. Rather, according to UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett, they receive salary stipends for their work with faculty “as part of their educational program.”

The law research assistants — many of whom have undergraduate and even graduate degrees — receive mentorship from a professor, who they work with one-on-one “doing legal research and writing,” according to the UI website.

“Law research assistant positions are primarily intended as learning experiences, which contribute to your progress toward our program of study,” according to the website.

In fact, according to the university, many state bar applications require research assistant supervisors to answer questions about their quality of work.

The law research assistant program also offers a tuition rate adjustment for non-resident students — dropping it to the residential rate. And it provides a health insurance benefit.

But Elkind said the students are campus employees who should be treated as such.

“The university website says students get the minimum wage, and law research assistants are skilled laborers and should be getting that much,” Elkind said. “I think they should be getting the county minimum.”

Johnson County supervisors last year approved stepped increases in the local minimum wage from the federal and state rate of $7.25 an hour to $8.20 in November, 2015, to $9.15 in May, 2016, and eventually $10.10 in January 2017.

Because UI employees are on the state payroll, the university doesn’t have to comply with county increases. But UI officials in a statement last November said the campus was adopting the $8.20 an hour rate “in order to remain competitive as we recruit and retain student employees.”

At that time, the new rate impacted about 36 temporary employees and 665 student employees, according to UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck. The university’s website still reports its minimum wage as $8.20 — meaning it hasn’t kept in step with the county’s May increase.

In a statement released in May, Beck said UI student employees average $9.66 an hour, above the $9.15 rate Johnson County enacted at that time.

“University employers will continue to monitor the wage rate necessary to hire and maintain student employees as the market adjusts to the new local wage levels and make adjustments as necessary,” Beck said. “No immediate action is required of UI employers ... however, individual units may want to consider potential market changes in budgeting for the 2017 fiscal year.”

Beck called student employment an “important element in supporting student success.” In the spring, the university reported 2,685 employees were making less than $9.15 an hour — including 2,647 students and 39 temporary staff.

Beck on Tuesday said the campus doesn’t employ any hourly workers at less than $8.20 an hour.

The university didn’t confirm the number of law research assistants on campus, but Elkind reported about 180.

The graduate student union’s contract with the Board of Regents — which outlines negotiated wages for UI graduate student employees — doesn’t cover law research assistants because it excludes student appointments that are “primarily intended as learning experiences which contribute to the students’ progress toward their graduate or professional program.”

But, Elkind said, he thinks law research assistants should be covered.

“If you look at the work they do, it’s the same work the people who are included do,” he said.

Thus, union leaders and research assistants have been meeting on the issue this semester, and some reached out to Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan for help. Sullivan said the county’s attorneys agree with the university’s interpretation of the law exempting the campus from the county’s minimum wage ordinance.

But, he said, “There are two issues here — what is legal and what is right.”

“Are they legally able to pay sub minimum wage? Perhaps,” Sullivan said. “Is it right? I don’t think so.”

The county decided to up its minimum wage in hopes of helping the 19,000 people in the community who are food insecure, according to Sullivan. Research showed those folks needed more income — not just social services — and Sullivan said those affected include students.

“I just think it’s kind of ironic when you hear all the talk about these young people who graduate thousands and thousands of dollars in debt,” Sullivan said. “In my mind, what the UI is choosing to do here is only exacerbating that.”

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