ASUC Senator Romario, who does not use a last name, did not anticipate struggling to financially sustain himself due to the sheer workload of an ASUC senator when he ran for the position last year.
Despite his advocacy work at the ASUC being “emotionally and mentally fruitful,” as a first-generation, independent student, he said he struggled to make ends meet, as the position’s pay of $250 a semester only allowed him to buy “maybe three textbooks.”
“I had to cut back on shifts at my two jobs because of how demanding the work is. I’ve had to withdraw not one but two emergency loans; I’ve decided to sleep instead of eat,” Romario said in an email. “As I’m fighting to get others warm, I’m lighting myself on fire.”
Romario is not the only ASUC official who believes this level of payment is an issue. ASUC External Affairs Vice President Varsha Sarveshwar shared that she is paid one of the lowest stipends in the UC system for her position at $4,000 a year, despite spending many hours on work and traveling on at least a monthly basis.
“Every single one of us is underpaid: senate members, chiefs of staff, etc.” Sarveshwar claimed. “The stipends are split even more if we have more people in that position. … We work so hard and to not be compensated above minimum wage is pretty insulting.”
She said she thinks this consistent underpayment harms the accessibility of the organization, adding that an adequate stipend would allow an ASUC official to treat their job in student government as a job with financial support, which is important for low-income students.
Instead, Sarveshwar said, ASUC officials historically lean toward representing the upper class of the student body in general, as more affluent students have the necessary time and resources to campaign effectively.
“It saddens me to think about all the amazing student leaders out there who will never step into an official role at the ASUC because it’s simply not plausible for their finances,” Romario said in the email.
Why are stipends so low?
ASUC Chief Personnel Officer Lily Ho said she believes the low stipends are the price of the ASUC’s autonomy from campus administration. While there has been discussion about increasing the stipends, she said, it would only be a small increase due to budget restrictions.
“Even though we have less pay, what we do has more impact,” Ho said. “We get less money, lower stipends, but more voice.”
Ho also attributed the low stipends to the many purposes of the budget in serving the student body, as most of the budget goes toward what the institution advocates for. She added that, unlike other schools where campus administrations have authority in budget decisions, the ASUC can choose to allocate money where it wants.
Sarveshwar echoed this sentiment, stating that the ASUC is the main avenue for Registered Student Organizations, or RSOs, to get funding, so ASUC officials have a bigger duty to return these dollars to them.
She said it tends to be a “politically convenient outcome” for ASUC officials to underfund themselves in order to generate funds for student causes.
Ho said she believes that because the ASUC exists to serve the student body, people run for office not for the money, but to learn and serve.
On the other hand, Romario said it is the idea of the position existing only to serve that exacerbates underpayment.
“No matter how sincere I am in how much I’m struggling, the title attached to my name rips me from my humanity. The work I do is still not enough,” Romario said in the email. “I’m not read as a first-generation, independent student asking for more money — in the eyes of those who do not know me, I’m a politician asking for more money.”
ASUC vs. Graduate Assembly: What can we learn?
Another prominent campus student government is the Graduate Assembly, or GA. While legally under the ASUC, the GA runs its budget independently, with the allocation of its funds differing greatly.
In 2019-20, the ASUC budget was $1,678,803 and the GA’s was $1,042,730. Despite the lower amount of funding, however, the GA’s stipends for officials are much higher than the ASUC’s.
GA Vice President of Finance Aaron Hall explained that GA stipends are assigned according to the type of role and perceived workload.
“We try to have some equity in the role compared to the stipend to ensure it’s not an arbitrary process,” Hall said. “In the coming year, we average roughly $25 an hour for all positions, but each position’s category has obligations around different numbers of hours.”
According to the organizations’ 2019-20 budgets, the GA president gets $23,400, vice presidents get $14,300 each and officers get $6,500 each for the entire academic year. In contrast, ASUC executives receive $4,000 each, appointed officials receive $2,000 each and senators receive $500 each for the entire academic year.
From 2014 to 2020, stipends in the ASUC have fluctuated very slightly. In 2015, ASUC senators’ individual yearly stipends were reduced from $1,000 each to $500, at which it remains. In 2017, the stipends of both chiefs of staff and appointed officials increased from $1,500 to $2,000.
The GA, however, approved consistent increases in stipends from 2014 to 2020, ranging from a total increase of $1,700 for vice presidents to a total increase of $4,200 for the president.
“We try our very best to compensate people appropriately,” Hall said. “I don’t think we have the funds to do that to the extent that is ideal, … but we do our best to ensure the stipends people receive are enough to incentivize people to come in to do this work, in addition to the personal fulfillment they get out of the role.”
Due to collaborations with other student organizations and the need to keep the budget flexible to dynamic student needs, the GA is able to accomplish much more than the sum of its parts, Hall added.
Sarveshwar said the GA’s budget shows that valuing officials is not only possible, but a choice, and that the ASUC’s limited budget should not be a barrier.
Ho said the much greater number of ASUC officials and different internal structures are reasons for the gap between the GA and ASUC in stipends. She said, however, that discussions are underway in the ASUC to try to satisfy everyone.
UC Berkeley vs. other UC campuses
Each UC campus varies in the naming, structure and funding of its student government.
David Minasyan, finance committee chair of UCLA’s Undergraduate Students Association Council, or USAC, said his school’s stipends vary by position and are handled through the student government accounting office, which is independent from USAC and overviews the budget and pays individuals.
As such, USAC officials do not have much control over these amounts, unlike at UC Berkeley, where the budget is handled by the ASUC chief financial officer and is comparatively more subject to change. ASUC Chief Financial Officer Lucy Liu was contacted for comment but did not respond as of press time.
Minasyan added that, unlike some ASUC officials, he feels he is paid adequately, with a stipend of $700 per month. He did not know he would be paid at first and only saw it as a bonus. Like him, he said, most students join USAC in order to become involved and make an impact rather than for the money.
The 2019-20 USAC budget allocates $161,490 to stipends split among 15 officers and commissioners, compared to the ASUC budget’s $61,250 split among five executives, 20 senators and several other officials and commissions.
USAC President Robert Watson said the stipends are based on California’s minimum hourly wage and are distributed on a biweekly basis. The ASUC’s stipends are below minimum wage and are distributed either every semester or three times a year, according to ASUC bylaws.
Watson added that while the yearly stipend of $10,000 for USAC council members might sound shocking at first, when broken down, with 20 or more hours of work per week, the number becomes a lot more “reasonable.” Sarveshwar praised this model, calling it “much more appropriate.”
Watson explained that it is a priority for USAC to pay its officials adequately, especially for low-income students who rely on USAC for support, which is why it “offer(s) workers a chance to be fulfilled, just like anywhere else,” a goal many ASUC officials said they hope to see in their pay as well.
Associated Students of UC Davis, or ASUCD, Controller Kevin Rotenkolber, who functions as the organization’s chief financial officer and chief operations officer, said in an email that the overall average stipend at UC Davis is $1,715, compared to UC Berkeley’s average stipend of $1,178.
According to Rotenkolber, accessibility in ASUCD remains a “significant issue.” ASUCD senators, commission chairs and the Judicial Council chair are paid $2,106 a year, falling in a range similar to that of ASUC stipends. Just like in the ASUC, most ASUCD committee chairs and members, commission members and senate staff are unpaid.
“I know that I, like many others, could still never afford to be a Senator,” Rotenkolber said in an email, echoing Romario’s sentiments. “I looked at the (controller) application, specifically the pay rate and thought ‘that would pay rent plus almost $200/month,’ if that had not been the case and if my hours were cut back at my other job, I couldn’t have afforded to take the position.”
Even as the third highest single stipended official in ASUCD, receiving $7,415.52 per year, Rotenkolber’s hourly pay translates to between $1.77 and $3 an hour, he said, compared to ASUC officials’ self-estimated rates of $1 or less an hour.
Just like at UC Berkeley, Rotenkolber said, many UC Davis students have shown interest in working for the student government but could not afford to consider it, instead opting to get a job on campus for higher hourly wages.
While both the ASUC and ASUCD are discussing correcting these deficient stipends, according to Rotenkolber, an immediate transition of all stipends even to minimum wage in the ASUCD would cost about $1.6 million to $1.9 million.
Various ASUC, ASUCD and USAC officials gave different suggestions for improving stipend rates.
“Increasing all of our pay is an uphill battle and one the campus community will most likely never vote for,” Romario said in the email. “Re-examining stipends and redistributing stipend amounts to reflect the amount of work, not a title, is a step in making this institution more accessible.”
Sarveshwar said a “modest increase” in the ASUC student fee may produce additional revenue to compensate officials and added that she thinks it would be “valuable” for the ASUC to produce a long-term plan for increasing pay.
“If you want top talent, really great people who care genuinely, then you have to reward these positions appropriately,” Sarveshwar said.
Watson’s advice for the ASUC emphasized the importance of sharing increased information with the public surrounding the issue. He said if students knew more about how the stipends are determined and that they are below minimum wage, their opinions might change.
Rotenkolber also had several suggestions to generate more revenue for stipend funding, including changing to a quarter system, taking on outside sponsorships, creating profitable businesses and running a fee referendum, the last of which is “extremely difficult,” in his experience. He said in an email that the last two have the potential to become long-term solutions if executed correctly.
He also proposed that the ASUC could redirect some funding from RSOs toward stipends. The ASUC currently provides more than $1 million to RSOs, compared to the $40,500 ASUCD allocates to RSOs.
“To learn from the Associated Students and Student Unions on sister campuses, ASUC might find that we’re all facing similar trials and coming up with different solutions with varying success,” Rotenkolber said in an email. “They should see what works, adapt it to your campus and go for it.”