The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Speaking and Writing Center employee payment policy frustrates some student consultants

5 min read
The Speaking and Writing Center Peer Academic Consulting Sign located on the fourth floor of the Hurley Convergence Center.

The Speaking and Writing Center is located on the fourth floor of the Hurley Convergence Center. | Nellie Bittenbender, The Weekly Ringer


Staff Writer

A Speaking and Writing Center policy that requires students to clock out while not doing work but stay on-site in the case of walk-in appointments has caused controversy among student employees this semester.

As outlined in the policy, student employees in the center need to be either in an appointment or working on a downtime project to be paid for the time that they are there. If they are working on a project, they also have to record the list of duties they performed during their shift. They are asked to clock out to work on homework or personal projects but remain on the premises in case there is a walk-in appointment. 

This policy is outside the norm for most student employment opportunities on campus. In many other campus jobs, students are allowed to do homework, even when they’re being paid for their jobs. It’s unclear whether the policy violates federal regulations dealing with waiting time because, on one hand, the students argue they are required to stay in the center even if they don’t have center-related work to do, but on the other, the director, Leah Schweitzer, argues that there is always work to do and students are making the decision do homework instead of center projects.  

“People who have had an issue with having to clock out argue that if we’re obligated to be at the center, then we should be paid for the entire time we’re there, even if we aren’t actively working on something,” said an employee who wished to remain anonymous.

Schweitzer says that while some students might lie about the number of hours they’ve worked, she has found that most Speaking and Writing Center employees are committed to their work. 

She said that consultants in the Speaking and Writing Center are treated the same as others in academic services on campus, which include peer tutors and peer academic consultants.

“All of academic services as a unit asks that if you are not going to work, you clock out,” Schweitzer said. “If you come into work and you do not have appointments, and you say you do not want to do work on behalf of the center, but you want to do your own homework, or you want to work on your own personal project, you are not going to be paid to refuse to do work.” 

She also said if no center-related work is available for students to complete, she would be happy to pay them for all their time at the center. 

A meeting agenda distributed at the beginning of the semester, however, suggests that there might be times when the amount of appointments is light, and students might have to clock out. The document says that the first week and post-midterm are “quiet times” and to “be mindful of punches,” which are used to clock in, and that finals week is also not very busy, so “get out of the mindset that there will be lots of work available.” 

When consultants are not in a meeting with other students, they have a Google Doc that lists projects they can do. The process of choosing projects from the Google Doc has frustrated some consultants. 

Eli Keith, a lead consultant at the center, said that sometimes the document can be difficult to read. 

“We have several Google Documents that are dozens of pages long,” said Keith, an English: creative writing major in the secondary education program. “We have a center Google account, so everyone is on the Drive and making notes. Sometimes it’s hard to know whose notes are whose and what’s exactly been done, and that’s something we’re still fleshing out.” 

Others have pointed out that they wished that the Google Doc’s task list was more specific. It is currently in an informal format. Some of the tasks on the list, such as vacuuming around the center, are difficult to accomplish when appointments are going on. 

The Google Doc lists work such as creating handouts, making graphics for advertisements, working on social media and maintaining the center. While students say that this process has improved since Schweitzer created a list of handouts that need to be made, they wish there had been more options at the start of the semester.

Not everyone agreed that the Google Doc system is unwieldy, however. 

“I quite frankly think that is a load of B.S.,” said Layla Barnes, another lead consultant and junior English: creative writing major in the secondary education program. “There are a million things to do, and there are a million people to ask.”

While it’s unclear how old the work policy at the center is, most students agree it was more strictly enforced when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Back then, student consultants were not working in the center, so they were expected only to work when they had appointments.

“From what I’ve heard, it started with COVID when people were literally working from their houses,” Barnes said. “It was something that, for a long time, we’ve kept around to offer people extra flexibility. Our boss always framed it as if you have a really deadline-heavy week, you need to do some of your own stuff, you have the flexibility if there is nothing you are doing for the center to clock out and work on some of your homework to get whatever you need done, done.” 

A few student consultants have expressed concerns about the legality of being asked to remain on-site for possible walk-in appointments while they are clocked out and unpaid. 

Concerns about this section of the Fair Labor Standards Act are often considered on a case-by-case basis, so the legality is hard to determine. However, according to J.H. Verkerke, professor of law and director of the program for employment and labor law studies at the University of Virginia School of Law, “an arrangement that requires workers to stay in an office area while on call almost certainly involves compensable time.”  

Some students have left their positions at the center, student consultants acknowledged, but none said it was specifically because of this policy but rather an accumulation of factors. A few of the students in the center have started protesting by remaining clocked in even when, according to the policy, they should clock out.

In the meantime, Schweitzer is trying to get a pay raise for the consultants. 

“Because the way the hike went and the way budgets were, unfortunately, when it went $12 an hour, it was a pay increase for most of them, but it’s leaving them at minimum wage along with everyone else,” she said. “So, I’m trying to figure out how to work the budget for next year so that it starts a little higher than the minimum wage in recognition that it’s this more skilled, trained position, and they are asked to do more than some other positions on campus.”