Rachel Livinal worked three jobs over the spring semester while balancing a full load of classes at Cal State Long Beach in the months leading up to her graduation. Two of those jobs were on campus; the other was at Staples.
Livinal was among the thousands of undergraduate Cal State University students who signed a petition filed in April to form a union that could represent more than 10,000 student workers who are classified as assistant workers.
CSULB employs 2,065 of them, and their average pay rate is $16.05, according to records provided to the Long Beach Post by the university. These workers are all limited to 20 hours per week.
While the university contends that the cap on hours is intended to help students balance work and academics, some students—particularly those with little or no financial support from their families—say it simply forces them to find work elsewhere. That makes it harder—not easier—to juggle their course loads and a work schedule that allows them to earn a living, students involved in the effort say.
“At the end of the day, it kind of feels like it’s just an unpaid internship,” Livinal told the Post. “It’s not a great situation, but I do what I have to do.”
Students looking to unionize say they’re fighting both for higher wages and to raise the cap on hours. The unionization effort would affect working conditions for clerical workers, student media, library assistants and more across the system’s 23 campuses.
Some 4,000 signatures have been turned over from CSU students, according to Martin Brenner, a technologist and part-time faculty member who is also a chief steward for the California State University Employees Union (CSUEU).
“Students can be asked to do just about anything and everything at low pay rates,” Brenner told the Post. “That really [gets] taken advantage of. Often doing work that a represented employee may make [three] times or more for doing.”
“As it stands now, they have almost no rights at all, and really low pay,” he said.
Brenner says students are being paid less than minimum wage in some cities, like San Diego.
“As a state entity, the CSU is subject to state, not local minimum wage laws. The salary range for [a] student assistant position is $15.50 to $23.50,” Amy Bentley-Smith, the director of public affairs for the CSU’s Office of the Chancellor, told the Post.
Those fighting for union representation say students are often faced with food and housing insecurity, debt and in the most severe cases, homelessness.
The CSU, meanwhile, asserts that it offers “one of the most affordable educations in the nation,” according to Bentley-Smith.
At CSULB, undergraduate students typically pay $3,494 per semester in tuition and mandatory fees, a number that inches up each academic year, according to College Tuition Compare.
‘We deserve to be paid more’
If Livinal would have been allowed to work more hours at her on-campus jobs—even at the same rate of pay—she would have, she told the Post.
At $16 per hour, she worked some 17 hours per week at her job as radio production and imaging director at student-run radio station, 22 West. She also worked three hours a week as the podcast editor for Dig Magazine.
According to Cal State University’s Chancellor’s office, the 20-hour cap serves a purpose.
“One of the purposes of having student assistant employees is to provide students the chance to explore and develop career-related skills and gain professional experience while working around their class schedules and commitments,” Bentley-Smith said. “Thus, the 20-hour cap, which only applies during the academic year, is to allow the students sufficient time to pursue their studies and progress to completing their degree within four years.”
“Adding more than 20 hours a week of part-time employment at the university on top of their studies can run counter to our desire to support students academically,” she said.
But students are facing a dire housing crisis and a high cost of living in many of the cities where CSU campuses sit. High costs tend to drive student assistants off campus to find additional work.
Livinal, for example, worked two days a week at Staples. But without assistance from CalFresh, she says even all three positions would not have been sufficient to support basic needs.
Other options include applying for financial aid in the form of a loan or a grant.
“Easing the financial burden of going to school is a top priority: our financial aid packages prioritize non-loan aid first, and more than 60% of financial aid recipients have their full tuition covered; and eligible students can apply for an emergency grant in cases of unexpected financial need,” Bentley-Smith said.
Still, students continue to raise concerns.
“I believe that for the work that we do, we deserve to be paid more,” Livinal said of her on-campus jobs. “I mean, running a radio station is a really hard task … and I’ve been able to make so much progress for this station.”
Often over the course of her senior year, Livinal said she spent more time at her partner’s house in South Gate than her own apartment in Long Beach. His parents generously fed the two of them, and the neighborhood didn’t present the threat of getting a street sweeping ticket in a parking impacted area.
“That’s honestly what’s keeping me afloat more than actually staying at my apartment,” she said.
Livinal worked at 22 West over both semesters of her senior year, and despite the temptation to dedicate more time to the station, she did not work over the 20-hour cap on campus, save for answering a few emails.
“A lot of people here resigned themselves to working more hours than they are on the clock,” she said. “And I decided that from Day One, I wasn’t going to do that.”
For Christal Gaines-Emory, the Daily 49er’s editor-in-chief during the spring semester and the upcoming fall semester, she says her role, which pays $15.50 an hour, would be impossible to do justice within the 20-hour cap.
“It’s a heavy workload, keeping a newspaper running—constant news, constant things going on,” she said, adding that she manages a staff of 35, who also often work over their 10 and 20 hour work caps.
Barbara Kingsley-Wilson, a CSULB journalism professor who serves as an advisor for the Daily 49er and has worked for the Post, empathizes with the students she advises and said that she would support actions that could result in an extension in the amount of hours a student can work, but only if it was something that the student wanted in consideration of their class load.
“Student media can be demanding,” she said. “It’s something like the real business, which is increasingly beset by consolidation and all these economic pressures. It makes it harder for workers.”
She added that most people she knows in the media industry are in a union.
“We’re supposed to prepare them [for the business]. … Maybe part of the preparation is being in a union and all that entails—job actions, union meetings, union dues,” she said of those working in student media. “Will students who are in the media for a year or two want to sign on for all that? Maybe? Maybe not, I don’t know.”
Gaines-Emory has made the school newsroom her on-campus home. It’s where she does most of her schoolwork and also dedicates at least five hours a day to running the newspaper.
“Sometimes more, sometimes less,” she said. “I spend a lot of late nights there. If it gets to be too late and I’m still not done, I’ll just go back to my dorm. Even if I’m not in the newsroom, I’m still working.”
The only day Gaines-Emory admits that she blocks out for herself are Saturdays. On Sundays, she’s back on editing duty, where she’s constantly scanning for breaking news.
While she hasn’t signed the petition to form a union for workers like herself, she said she will after giving it some thought.
“We all feel the pressure, the financial burden that a lot of us experience especially as college students working in student media,” she said. “We’re underpaid for the amount of work that we do.”
Next steps and barriers ahead
A union authorization petition was filed on April 17 with an estimation of 3,000 signatures, which was about 30% of workers, the amount needed to trigger a union election, according to the CSUEU. This is expected to eventually allow workers to vote on whether they want union representation.
“The CSU acknowledges workers’ rights to organize and is committed to following the state’s collective bargaining laws and regulations,” a statement from the CSU said. “It will be up to the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to approve an election.”
Brenner acknowledged that filing the petition is the first step of many before a union can actually be formed.
“It is a monumental effort that takes a lot of time, coordination and resources,” he said.
Livinal, meanwhile, loved her on-campus jobs. It’s where she received real-world experience. Over the last fall and spring semesters, she worked to produce podcasts, refresh 22 West’s library of PSAs and teach other students how to use Adobe Audition. At the end of the day, she said she would have rather worked these jobs for little pay than not. But she worries that this very scenario, common among student assistant workers, will continue to compromise an opportunity for change.
Like Livinal and many others working for the departments of their declared major, Gaines-Emory feels an immense pressure to dedicate the majority of her time to the Daily 49er. At times, it’s a duty she’s more drawn to than her actual schoolwork, she admits.
“All student media is extremely important to our campus, because we keep everyone informed,” she said. “Not to hate on our administration, but a lot of the time, they aren’t particularly clear.”
Livinal pointed to one obvious barrier that could thwart the effort to unionize—students are also constantly in flux. They graduate and they move on, she said.
“Students only really want to care about what will affect them,” Livinal said. “And so if it doesn’t affect them, a lot of the time, they don’t move forward. And I can admit to doing that with the petition.”
Brenner acknowledged this challenge, noting that the signatures to trigger a vote, and the votes themselves, will come from different groups of students, as they come and go.
“As you know, seniors and some graduate students graduated,” he said. “We will have new students in significant numbers in the fall. But if we can get them the right to vote, they will be able to make a decision on their own.”
Livinal feels the same strong indignance toward student working conditions that is fueling the effort to vote for union representation. But she also admitted that she shares a certain level of despondency with many of her peers.
“It sounds great, it sounds wonderful, and I’m really glad that students are trying to make a change, but I also feel like our voices just generally are not heard. At the end of the day, there’s only so much we can do,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of trust in our higher ups. I don’t feel like the adults treat us like we’re adults too.”
“It’s the same thing with students not walking at graduation … we’ve had protest after protest, nothing happened,” Livinal said. “A lot of efforts don’t get past the first stage.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Dig Magazine.