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Friday, October 15, 2021
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As of right now, dozens of international student workers are providing labor to the university that they are not being compensated for. 

Letter to the Editor: Call to Action — UW Administration is Discriminating Against International Student Workers

We write this letter after having introduced legislation on behalf of the Associated Students of Madison (ASM), calling for Chief Human Resources Officer Mark Walters and Vice Chancellor of Finance & Administration Laurent Heller to extend payment to any student worker telecommuting, regardless of whether they are in the U.S. or not. As of right now, dozens of international student workers are providing labor to this institution that they are not being compensated for, constituting wage fraud. 

This year, for the first time since any of us joined ASM, the administration forced us to ask new student hires on their employment forms whether they were currently in the U.S. or not. If a student selected that they were not in the U.S., they were informed after starting work that they could still perform their work, but not be paid. After seeing zero action taken when bringing this issue up with several Vice Chancellors, the Dean of Students and the Office of Human Resources, we can no longer remain silent on this abuse of student rights.

UW is fully compensating non-student international telecommuters who are in the exact same situation. The decision to not pay international student telecommuters is a policy choice the administration is making simply to cut costs. 

As much as UW’s current policy to not pay students telecommuters from outside the U.S. might seem like a blanket policy in place for any student in this situation, the reality is that the majority of students who are telecommuting are international students. We also want to point out that this policy has discouraged many international students from working in the first place, as they only know they would not be compensated for their services after they started working.

International students at UW-Madison this school year are estimated to pay approximately $39,630 in tuition fees alone, the highest amount among categories of undergraduate students at UW-Madison. With this sum of money to pay towards their education, it makes sense to have international students seeking ways to support themselves financially while studying. With many regulations surrounding off-campus employment, such as having to seek Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT) before being allowed to work off-campus, only being allowed to work in industries directly related to their academic majors and even being limited on the number of hours they can work off-campus, most international students resort to working on-campus. It is, quite simply, the easiest way they can support themselves. 

With this decision to deny telecommuting students their hard-earned wages, international students and other students telecommuting to work are locked out of the many ways they can support themselves financially, as they partake in their studies online and attempt to work from home in the midst of a global pandemic. 

The decision to deny wages to students telecommuting abroad is wrong, as it is abusing international students for unpaid labor. Furthermore, the process behind the arrival of the decision to deny pay to international telecommuting students was kept secret, so much so that several senior level administrators tasked with looking after the welfare of students were not even aware of or involved in the decision making. When we asked Office of Human Resources Chief of Staff Jessica Karls-Ruplinger, who made the decision to not pay student workers telecommuting from outside the U.S. this fall, she claimed it came from “campus leadership.” However, she could not provide us with any more information beyond this. Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Lori Reesor mistakenly claimed in an October meeting with ASM leaders that she believed students not living in the U.S. were being compensated for their labor. What was most offensive was Chief Human Resources Officer Mark Walters sharing directly with us that international student telecommuters did not deserve to be paid, as in his very own words, “work from international student telecommuters is not essential to the operations of UW-Madison.” This is not only an insult to everything we stand for, but a direct instance of workplace discrimination, as defined in Wisconsin Statutes §51.01(5).

Placing this direct disregard from administrators toward student workers aside, it is simply not fair to come up with a policy that is in direct contradiction to what these same administrators stood for and said just a few months ago, before this said policy took effect. Guidance was issued by the Office of Human Resources on March 13, 2020 for international telecommuters to be paid in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was said that “Telecommuting will be extended as an option for employees who are able to work remotely as our campus situation or other external factors dictate.” On July 17, 2020, Human Resources Director Cheryl Adams Kadera sent a memo to L&S Department Chairs, Directors, and Administrators stating “Campus has informed us that we can proceed with approval of international telecommuting agreements for current and prospective employees that are not able to return to the United States for fall semester.” The same memo shares “If a return to Wisconsin is not possible, continuing to telecommute from an international location remains an option, but there may be additional paperwork to complete.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison does have a process for paying international telecommuters, as demonstrated by the ability for L&S faculty, staff and student international telecommuters to be paid if certain processes are followed. As the next semester approaches, it would only be fair to pay students every dime they have earned providing labor to this school. We also demand that these same students are retroactively compensated for the very wages they have been denied.

As much as we believe that our legislation will pass in Student Council during the next meeting, more action is needed beyond the ASM Student Council supporting and using its voice on behalf of the students impacted by this policy. Mark Walters, Laurent Heller and everybody else need to realize that it is criminal and a form of discrimination to place the burden of this University’s financial mismanagement on only a specific group of students — in this case being international students. We do understand that UW-Madison has had to make tough choices to make ends meet since the pandemic began, but denying students their rightful wages is simply not an ethical or moral way to achieve budgetary goals.

We need your help to reverse this policy. Please email your thoughts to Mark Walters and Laurent Heller at mark.walters@wisc.edu and laurent.heller@wisc.edu. We would also appreciate you speaking in open forum at the next ASM Student Council meeting on Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. or submitting a written comment to studentcouncilreps@asm.wisc.edu.

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