ORONO, Maine — After violating its own student employment policies by failing to pay students for short breaks during work shifts, the University of Maine is paying an approximate total of $75,000 in back wages to more than 900 current and former dining services student employees.
The money will compensate student workers in UMaine’s dining services program who weren’t paid during 15-minute meal breaks over a two-year span.
“Retroactive pay was offered to all dining services student employees as a matter of fairness in response to concerns some students raised,” University of Maine spokeswoman Margaret Nagle said in an email Wednesday.
Those students will be receiving checks ranging from $1.88 to $556 through the spring, according to the university. The average payment is just over $41 per student. Dining Services, which operates dining halls, cafes and a pub on campus, has an annual payroll of $850,000 for student employees.
In September, three UMaine students who worked in dining services aired their concerns about having to clock out for 15-minute breaks and not getting paid for those periods. The employees also received a complimentary meal during a break in their shift, according to the university’s policy.
Kaitlyn Spaulding, a second-year student who works in dining services, said she worked a 10½-hour shift last August and had to complain to a supervisor 7½ hours into her shift in order to finally get a 15-minute break.
“That really bothered me, so I started researching the laws surrounding breaks,” Spaulding said. “The 15-minute rest breaks that we receive are not federally mandated. However, if our employer decides to offer rest breaks, which they do, they cannot hold it against our wages.”
Spaulding and two fellow students in dining services raised the issue with supervisors and university officials, prompting a forum to gather student feedback on employee break practices.
In response, the university started paying student workers for their meal breaks and started tabulating retroactive pay for students who hadn’t been paid during those 15-minute breaks in the past.
The three students believe the practice violated federal wage regulations. The university contends the practice was not illegal but said they “didn’t match our written student employment policies,” according to Nagle.
Before 2003, dining services held different meal periods that ran just 3-hours each, and students didn’t get any breaks during those short shifts, the university said.
As food services expanded hours because of demand, so did the hours of student employees. At the time, most of those students told their bosses they wanted short breaks for free meals built into their shifts, allowing more flexibility for classes or to avoid scheduling conflicts that prevented them from having a meal before the start of their shifts, Nagle said. Those students clocked out of work when they took these meal breaks. That practice continued as dining services grew, today operating from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. or later.
Spaulding and Jordan Raffalli, a fourth-year UMaine student who also contested the break policy, said they’re pleased students are getting paid for those breaks but argue the university should have gone further than two years of retroactive pay. They argue the university should pay students as far back as they have employment records.
The university said it’s only paying retroactive wages from October 2014 through October 2016 because it’s following the typical lookback period that would apply in a Department of Labor wage dispute.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.