• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.



Unsteady paid hours can upend students’ plans.

July 5, 2022

The Girl works at a local restaurant several nights a week, mostly doing takeout orders. She gets the local minimum wage plus tips, though tips aren’t usually much when doing takeout.

(PSA: if you have the means, please tip at takeout. It never occurred to me to do that until TG mentioned it; now I do it routinely.)

It’s a decent gig, as teenage jobs go. She reports that it isn’t too stressful most of the time, except when older men decide to be flirty and/or condescending. As feminist as she was before starting there, she’s much more so now. Happily, she’s good at maintaining her poise and drawing boundaries without causing a scene, which is a useful life skill. By her account, the managers vary in quality, but none are toxic, and they’ve been known to look the other way when extra fries find their way to the staff. By the standards of teenage jobs, it’s OK.*

Over the last few weeks, though, she has repeatedly bumped into an annoying truth that I remember from my hourly wage years: many employers don’t think there’s anything weird or inappropriate about sending workers home early—that is, cutting paid time short—when the place is slow. She has had several five-hour shifts reduced to three hours or less recently, with proportionate income loss.

If that were an issue just with the one employer, the obvious response would be to find a new one. But it’s endemic. Many community college students face this on a regular basis.

Fluctuating hours like that aren’t just an income issue. They can wreak havoc with transportation arrangements, and they make finding other jobs much harder. If your days and hours at the Feed Bag vary from week to week, how do you know which days and hours you could commit to at Velma’s Vittles? In theory, fewer hours at one job could allow for more at another, but that’s much harder to do when the hours move around. In practice, the lost hours are a form of shifting risk from the employer to the employee.

The Girl is luckier than many. With TW and I intermittently working from home, we’ve generally been able to have a car available for her when she has a shift, so getting home after a short shift hasn’t been a problem. And she isn’t living on what she makes there. In her case, it’s more annoying than catastrophic. But not everybody is in that situation. For students who are trying to support themselves and/or their families while going to school, abrupt cuts in hours can be a tipping point at which something has to give.

Community colleges are known for working closely with local employers to help meet their needs for trained workers. Asking for some level of reciprocity seems reasonable. Employees should be able to count on a certain number of hours per week as a baseline, and the hours should be relatively predictable. (Yes, there are holidays and special occasions. I’m referring here to “normal” weeks.) That way a worker who is also in college can set up routines for getting classwork done, or a worker who needs a second job to make ends meet will know the days and times to which they could commit. Spontaneous cuts of 40 percent are not reasonable.

Changes like these probably require more than just informal agreements; otherwise, employers who take the high road would be at an economic disadvantage compared to those who shift risk to the employees without a second thought. But waiting for our politics to change enough to make rules like those binding could take decades. In the meantime, working with the employers who hire many of our students and graduates seems like a reasonable place to start. I don’t know many people who could withstand repeated and spontaneous 40 percent cuts in pay, and the ones I do know aren’t working for hourly wages.

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone actually tried this?

*Admittedly, they initially tried to get her to accept her pay via a prepaid debit card, which is pretty shady. We pushed back and arranged for actual checks. So far, they’ve honored it.

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Matt Reed

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