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Some student workers at public universities in California earn less on campus than they would at nearby fast food joints, thanks to exemptions that at least two universities use to avoid paying local minimum wage.

Voters and politicians in California’s expensive Bay Area cities have raised their local minimum wages to help low-income residents, including a significant population of students in Berkeley, San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland.

But at least two public universities have used exemptions to avoid paying those higher wages.

In San Francisco, the current minimum wage is $10.74 an hour. San Francisco State University pays 44 percent of its student workers less than that, according to a spokeswoman, Ellen Griffin. That’s because, as a state agency, the university is only required to pay the state minimum wage of $9 an hour. (The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.)

In Berkeley, where the city’s minimum wage is $10 per hour for all private employers, the University of California at Berkeley is continuing to pay about a quarter of its student workers less than that, according to a spokeswoman, Janet Gilmore. She said the average student pay is $12 an hour.

At least two other colleges in the area – City College of San Francisco and San Jose State University – are paying their students the higher wages set by local laws, even though various officials said they do not have to.

University of California officials said this week, apparently for the first time, that the Berkeley campus planned to pay the city’s minimum wage law starting next fall.

"We are exploring raising our minimum wage," Gilmore said. "UC Berkeley-employed students work in various Bay Area cities; consequently we will review minimum wages of local jurisdictions and will determine appropriate next steps."

Earlier in the week, another UC Berkeley spokeswoman told a local weekly newspaper, the East Bay Express, that the university did not have to pay the higher wages because it had constitutional autonomy.

A City of Berkeley councilman, Jesse Arreguin, said the university – which is his city’s biggest employer – had never planned to pay the city's minimum wage.

“We were hoping they would follow the letter and the spirit of the law,” he said.

Arreguin said UC Berkeley is paying below the city's minimum wage even as the University of California system is planning to increase student tuition 27 percent over the next five years.

The councilman said the university's plans to raise wages are encouraging "but, you know, our minimum wage is a floor -- $10 an hour is not enough to support yourself in Berkeley or the Bay Area."

The overlap of federal, state and local laws in California creates some curious circumstances. In California, state agencies, including public colleges, generally do not have to follow local wage laws, according to several college and city officials.

That created a brief conflict at San Jose State University. Students from the university’s sociology classes began and then championed a local ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage in the City of San Jose.  Voters approved the citywide wage increase in November 2012 in the face of opposition from the Chamber of Commerce and restaurant owners.

Despite that, San Jose State University President Mohammad Humayon Qayoumi balked at raising the minimum wage on campus, according to Scott Myers-Lipton, the professor whose sociology students led the campaign.

“The president was going to continue paying $8,” Myers-Lipton said. That was the state minimum wage at the time.

That changed, though, after a meeting in late 2012 or early 2013. Students met with Qayoumi and told the president it would not look good if the students were not getting paid the wage they fought to raise for the rest of the city.

“I think the president agreed with the logic, but I think it was more because of the possible bad press that may have resulted,” Myers-Lipton said.

Patricia Harris, a spokeswoman for San Jose State and its president, said, “SJSU did take time to study the financial implications as the increase came in the middle of SJSU's fiscal year."

At San Francisco State, students have different minimum wages depending on who they work for: the public entity that is the university itself or the university’s affiliated University Corporation.

Students who work for the university itself still make less than the San Francisco minimum wage because the university is exempt from the local wage law. Students who work for the corporation and the vendors the corporation contracts with – including the bookstore and restaurants – make at least the city minimum wage, perhaps $1.74 an hour more.

At UC Berkeley, the university advertises 93 student work-study jobs that pay less than $10 an hour.

The university also works with off-campus companies as part of the Federal Work-Study program. Of the current openings for UC Berkeley students at a private company, all pay $10 per hour or more.

That creates an interesting situation: the university pays its academic center assistants $9.50 an hour, but Apollo Group – the parent company of the for-profit University of Phoenix – is advertising math and English tutor jobs for UC Berkeley students that pay $10 an hour in Oakland, which does not currently yet have its own local minimum wage in place.

The federal government’s Student Aid Handbook says students who are part of the Federal Work-Study program must make the highest minimum wage in their area, be it federal, state or local.

Justin Draeger, the president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said there are unexplored complexities with UC Berkeley’s current position but generally the federal government wants its federally funded student workers to make the highest minimum wage in the area.

“I would venture to think schools would want to give students as much as they are able,” he said.

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