Transition Programs transition to new, legal way of payment for Seahawk Links


Photo courtesy of Alex Patton.

Alex Patton, far right in front row, a junior at UNCW and former Seahawk Link, pictured with his Freshman Seminar class.

Casey McAnarney, Editor-in-Chief

Tasked with assisting incoming freshman as they transition from high schoolers to college students, Seahawk Links spend countless hours getting to know their students and researching ways in which they can ease this transitionary period for new Seahawks. However, concerned Links question why their hours spent outside of the classroom are not compensated by the university.

Seahawk Links, an organization housed under Transition Programs, are UNC Wilmington upperclassmen who “serve as mentors to [freshman] through interactions in the classroom and by assisting new students with making connections to UNCW,” according to the UNCW website. Links are hourly employees of the university and they act as assistants and peer mentors in First Year Seminar classes.

The contract signed by each Link states, compensation for this position is $7.25 “per hour confirmed time spent in the First Year Seminar class.” Links work three hours a week in the classroom and this contract does not specify whether or not trainings and weekly meetings qualify as hours worked for compensation. One specific Link found possible legal implications with federal labor laws.

Alex Patton, a junior at UNCW majoring in Communication Studies and minoring in Psychology whose father is a labor lawyer, was reviewing his own Link contract when he asked his father about the legality of the contract. Patton’s father claimed that it was not legal.

Patton first went to Christina Logan, director of Transition Programs, with his concerns.

“I told her and she did not know what to do because she is not a lawyer,” Patton said. “She made a copy of all of the things I gave [The Seahawk] and then she just said ‘we can’t do anything about the past.’”

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act [FLSA], hourly employees who attend “lectures, meetings, training programs and similar activities” require compensation. The exceptions to this are: if it is outside of normal work hours, a voluntary opportunity, not job-related and where no other work is “concurrently performed.” The Act also states that businesses pay non-salaried employees for all time spent at mandatory meetings.

When asked why Links are paid hourly each week for the class that they attend rather than paid stipends like Resident Assistants or Orientation Leaders, the latter of whom is also housed under Transition Programs, Logan said, “We considered several options for providing compensation to Links for their participation beyond the leadership development they gain from the program. Some Links are able to attend class sessions more frequently than others, and we wanted to recognize that with hourly compensation.”

Links, aside from the paid three hours a week, have weekly meetings and semesterly events that require mandatory participation. Patton said that neither of these stipulations come with compensation.

The Link contract states that links “be present and on time for all trainings, weekly meetings, and mandatory events.” Though it is not explicitly stated whether or not termination is a possible outcome should a Link miss a meeting, former Link and UNCW alum Kassie Fuchs verified that for each minute a Link is late to a weekly meeting they must do 10 minutes of desk duty in the main office in return.

Fuchs, a former Leading Link Counsel [LLC] member, did dispute Patton’s claims that meetings are not paid. However, though it is not stated in the Link contract, Patton said that Transition Programs pays LLC members for meetings. Regular Links are not paid.

“The hard part of being a Link is you get paid for the hour that they know you are going to be in class but there is so much more that you do outside of the classroom to prepare for it, any events you set up with your students and one-on-ones you have,” Fuchs said. “That is a lot of time, however, it is not required and it is hard to track that. It is kind of hard to pay something you can’t check. So there is a lot of work that goes unpaid.”

Compared to other on-campus jobs, former Link Gary McFee said that Transition Programs does not properly compensate the work done by Links. McFee was also a member of Health Promotions, a student-run educational program out of the Abrons Student Health Center.

“The Health Center was awesome, they actually paid you hourly,” McFee said. “You could go in and do your work and whatever you did outside of work you could put on your timesheet.”

McFee was also an Orientation Leader and said that, though the stipend did not come out to very much in the end, it ultimately was more than his paycheck for being a Link.

“I was an Orientation Leader twice for Transition Programs and you got paid $1,500 for the summer,” McFee said. “Granted, for the amount of work we did, I think me and my buddies at the time were joking around that you made about 25 cents an hour, but that was even better though because we knew what we were getting into. But with the Seahawk Link thing, it was just so much extra stuff that kept piling on.”

One former Link, who asked to remain anonymous for this article, said that the issue of payment clouded their first year as a link, but did not taint the overall experience they had.

“I was hung up on the compensation and the fact that we had mandatory events, but I still decided to do it a second time because it was a very rewarding experience helping first-year students know where they stand at UNCW and showing them the ropes,” they said. “That’s all super worth it. Even the mandatory events we had outside of going to class I still think was worth it. It was a great bonding experience; you got to learn mentorship and a little bit of teamwork.”

This individual did still find the weekly meetings “pointless” at times. “Every meeting was not improving ourselves as Seahawk Links. Sometimes the meetings felt pointless and on top of that, we were not getting paid for them. That was frustrating.”

Issues concerning the Links’ contract also involve lines that read about mandatory volunteer work. On the contract, Links must initial next to lines to show that they understand what these requirements of them in this role. Two lines, specifically, ask that Links make themselves available for volunteer work.

One line reads, “To volunteer during Move-In on August 12, 2017” and the next, “To assist with Freshman Convocation on August 14, 2017.” Other lines also read, “To attend UNCWelcome activities and to assist in staffing by volunteering and publicizing events for UNCWelcome,” as well as, “To volunteer during Family Weekend on September 15-17, 2017.”

Patton said that Transition Programs did not pay Links for any of these dates or mandatory events. Though the contract calls this volunteering, Patton said that it was often mandatory or met with threats of termination if one could not make time for said events.

However, there are stipulations within the law that allow for universities to circumvent FLSA requirements.

Section 10b24 of Chapter 10 of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Field Operations Handbook states, “University or college students who participate in activities generally recognized as extracurricular are generally not considered to be employees within the meaning of the Act… students serving as residence hall assistants or dormitory counselors, who are participants in a bona fide educational program, and who receive remuneration in the form of reduced room or board charges, free use of telephones, tuition credits, and the like, are not employees under the Act.”

“The Seahawk Link program is one aspect of the educational experience at UNCW some students choose to pursue,” Logan said. “The hourly payment for class session attendance was designed to recognize the additional time some Links are able to devote to their own development and our first-year students. Although we are changing the way Links are compensated, the program has been designed to comply with the law.”

Logan did not specify which laws with which they were in adherence.

Alternatively, students working on campus whose duties fall outside of an educational program, like students who work in Hawk’s Nest or at the Student Recreation Center, “are generally considered employees under the Act.”

The university could be using this as a means to explain compensation within different employment opportunities on campus. However, it depends upon how the university classifies different groups of student employees. UNCW could very well likely classify Links not as employees based on the educational nature of their work, but that leaves questions about other education-based student roles on campus like Health Promotions.

Ultimately, until the university responds with clear classifications for Links and other on-campus employees it is uncertain whether or not the contract for Links is entirely legal. This could become even more complicated now that next year’s Links will be paid for meetings and training. Logan said to The Seahawk that, “In the past, Links were not compensated with hourly pay for weekly meetings.  Going forward, that is changing.”

“I do not know if it was always her plan to make meetings paid for,” Patton said, “but less than a week later we got that email that said now you get paid.”

According to an email sent out to 2018-2019 Links, “Links will be paid for meetings and trainings in addition to the classroom hours for UNI! And, we have been able to create more flexibility in the schedule of events for the fall, which is exciting, too.”

Logan said that decisions like this take time to implement and that her department began thinking about this possible change last fall, deciding to move forward with the idea in December.