Unemployment Insurance for Student Workers

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05-26-2014 Update: 
Because facts and figures only go so far, here is my digitally drawn political cartoon, which hopefully will stimulate your reptilian brain in a way that moves you more potently than if I were to treat you as an exclusively rational actor by addressing only your cerebral cortex!

Original Article: 

UW System would be obligated to offer unemployment insurance to student workers and graduate assistants under proposed UW Students UI Act; model legislation drafted

Long overdue is the provision of a safety net for the underserved population of unemployed college graduates. Every year, thousands upon thousands of UW System graduates find themselves ineligible for re-appointment to their student jobs because they graduate and are ineligible for unemployment insurance (UI) due to a coldhearted collusion between the “fall where the chips may” UW System and the hands-off legislature that lets the UW get away with failing to provide UI for the overwhelming majority of its student workers and graduate assistants.

One may try to excuse this abominable treatment of student workers by saying, “They can advocate for themselves and acquire a UI provision in their employment contract.” But they are unlikely to succeed in such an endeavor because:

1) Many students, being new to the workforce, are ignorant of the possibility of UI.

2) Many of the students who are cognizant of UI believe there is nothing they can do to obtain UI for a position that might not have it; they assume that either a position provides UI by law or it does not.

3) The very existence of Wis. Stat. 108.04(15)(i) exempts the UW System and accredit universities generally from having to appropriate UI for student workers and graduate assistants.

The third point in particular is an aggressive display of contempt for the contributions of student workers, from the lowliest dishwasher in the bowels of Restaurant Operations to the most learned graduate assistants discovering new innovations. None of them receive UI unless they negotiate specific language into their employment contracts at the time of job offer.

So although a suspicious student possessing the unlikely knowledge of a hard-bitten graduate could potentially bring a labor lawyer with him or her to the contract signing, his or her chance of achieving a successful UI claim once no longer appointed as a student worker remains nil due to the university’s offer to rescind a job offer upon learning how wise to UI the student is.

“Bring a lawyer with?” Yes — if you delay even a day in signing the contract for any reason, then the business unit will find some other student to take your place in that student job.

University Restaurant Ops has denied employment even for needing a one-day delay to retrieve a Social Security card from home, so of course it is readily conceivable that a university business unit would rescind an employment offer for something more confrontational such as requesting time for a labor lawyer to review the employment contract.

How does that free pass on providing for student welfare morally align with the Wisconsin Idea? What was the legislature thinking when it passed such a slap in the face of university student employees?

The university (and more than likely, the UW System as a whole) does not consider student workers to ever be “laid off.” Rather, they are “non-re-appointed” because their limited-term employment (LTE) ends every semester and is renewable until they are no longer a student. Either way you define the situation, student workers are matter-of-factly separated from their work due to the job-ending action of GRADUATING.

This issue won’t pass without a lot of grassroot support from current student workers, their non-student-job working peers, and parents. United Council and the student governments at the various UW campuses might want to hop aboard this change-making train, but ultimately it will be up to the most politically powerful members of Wisconsin society to exercise their impact upon civic life for the benefit of these vulnerable new graduates who worked hard at student jobs but have neither follow-up employment nor UI.

It is the parents especially who can be the most supportive politically, as many feel the sting from the expense of the so-called Boomerang Generation of degree-holding adults who are unable to secure gainful employment that pays enough to support independent living. Generation Jobless is therefore not the only interest group to benefit from the wage security of UI benefits for non-re-appointed student workers and graduate assistants.

My tendency to be opinionated stems from my clear sense of right and wrong. The Wisconsin Idea may have permitted enough moral relativism for the legislature of yore to perform the necessary mental gymnastics by which to conclude, “If you earned a UW degree but are unable to secure gain employment, then we erred in admitting you we really don’t think you’re worth any UI, let alone a real job. Tough luck! Oh, and thanks for the tuition money.”

My legislation, the UW Students UI Act, does not ask for a permanent job for any amount of student workers. Rather, it extends the same UI protections towards student workers and graduate assistants that would have existed if not for the antagonistic wording of statutes by an earlier legislature to specifically exclude accredited universities from being legally obliged to fulfill the UW mission statement, which includes the directive “to develop human resources.”

This dovetails with the policy directive of Wis. Stat. 108.01(1), which effectively encourages business units to establish a social contract of wage security for employees, including but not limited to UI. In fact, UI is a fundamental component of wage security such that accredited universities practically vilify themselves to anyone in the know about their low propensity to fund UI for students.

While I could excuse that behavior by for-profit universities, it is particularly grievous how the UW System is reluctant to provide UI for student workers and graduate assistants. A progressive institution should be thrilled to help progressively-educated youth maintain wage security when those youth have given back to the university in not only tuition but also through direct contribution of labor to keep the university operating smoothly.

Before you dismiss these contributors to the university workforce as “mere student workers,” remember these are the employees who fill in when non-student staff take their paid vacations. Student workers function alongside the non-student staff but are effectively treated as second-class citizens through not only non-re-appointment to the job upon graduating but also exclusion from UI provisions in more cases than not.

The vast majority of these economically prone workers are LTE and without any contractual provision of UI. To reiterate a critical point: such exemption from UI responsibility for student workers and graduate assistants is possible primarily because existing statutes let the matter slide.

Do you, dear legislators and UW regents, want to admit that a substantial portion of those who are good enough to be admitted to and graduate with honors from the UW System are not good enough to be employed anywhere? That is the level of prestige communicated when you allow business units within the UW System to disclaim obligation to pay UI to student workers and graduate assistants.

For an institution that prides itself on progressivism to continue shortchanging student workers in that way is both cowardly and hypocritical. It is the moral imperative for the legislature to force the UW System into fulfilling this social duty of providing UI to its hard-working student employees, as it has been grossly lax in doing so due to extant statutes permitting such negligence to be lawful.

My proposal eliminates the UI exemption for student employees and graduate assistants of accredited universities in Wisconsin, including but not limited to member campuses of the UW System. It is high time the Wisconsin Idea was reflected through greater wage security for the more than 25,000 student workers in the UW System.

The concluding paragraphs of this fiscal impact statement summarize the enhancement to public welfare afforded by the most basic provision of UI for student workers:

Funding unemployment insurance for student employees returns roughly $1.69 million to the economy at the conjunction of minimal multi-week claim prevalence and the lowest contribution rate of 5.4%.

The economic boost from student-worker UI is even greater during more pervasive graduate unemployment, rising by $3 million for every 50 percentage-point rise in new graduate unemployment among recent student employees at the same 5.4% contribution rate.

The most economically potent cash infusion from accrual of UI by student workers occurs when both the contribution rate and graduate unemployment rate are moderately high. For example, the intersection of many multi-week claims and a moderate contribution rate of 7% produces over $8.7 million in liquidity.

Because recent student workers are very inexperienced and generally of low disposable income, such money awarded to them is spent rather than saved, thereby fueling statewide economic recovery.

The public is more aware than ever of the UW System’s lack of care towards its unemployed alumni, particularly the absence of UI for the preponderance of non-re-appointed student workers whose sole reason for no longer being appointed to subsequent employment terms by the university is because he or she graduated.

One situation in which one might argue graduation is involuntary separation from student work is when the student desires to continue work but already has earned double the credits required to graduate and is therefore charged more per credit, thereby making re-enrollment at the minimum credit level for student job eligibility neither cost-effective, economical, nor profitable for the student.

My proposal precludes the need to ascertain whether graduation constitutes involuntary termination. Whether or not UW officials want to argue choosing to graduate is voluntarily terminating one’s eligibility for re-appointment to student employment, the revised language declares unequivocally that graduation is NOT a reason for denial of UI to the student worker or graduate assistant.

It therefore becomes immaterial as to whether the student employee wanted to, but was effectively prohibited from, re-enrolling perpetually for the sake of maintaining his or her student job over the course of five or ten degrees (or however many it takes to fill the time until the student without an occupational future is of retirement age; sarcasm) and was therefore involuntarily terminated.

If any interest group cares about this, then I’d like to collaborate on getting this bill through the legislature and onto Governor Walker’s desk for signature. I’m confident that enough heartfelt testimonials of how more graduates than ever need UI from their student jobs will be sufficient to persuade legislators of the propriety and need for this measure.

If the legislature does not approve this measure, then the message is, “Recently unemployed student workers and graduate assistants unable to find follow-up jobs can go rot. We don’t want them receiving unemployment insurance or re-employment assistance because they’re not worth it; their only future is unskilled labor that won’t build towards any discernible career.”

Is that really what you want to tell the LTE workers of the UW System? It’s the message we’re hearing. Disabuse us of that notion — pass the UW Students UI Act!

Bill Text | DOC

Benefit-Cost Analysis (PDF) | DOC