New York paper stops publishing after student court cuts off staff pay

NEW YORK — The State University of New York at Potsdam’s student court has ruled to withhold wages from the student newspaper following a complaint regarding the paper’s pay system.

The Racquette staff stopped publishing and plans to ask for an amendment to the student government rule they’re accused of violating at a meeting this week.

In February, Sara Behuniak, vice president of the Student Government Association at SUNY Potsdam, filed a complaint with the Student Supreme Court stating that The Racquette pays “a selective amount of its members” and “payment is based unfairly on position, rather than the actual work done.”

Editor-in-Chief Emily Beatty said pay goes to members of the paper’s editorial board. There is a weekly cap on the hours associated with each position, but the caps are always met or surpassed because of the amount of work the staff has to do, Beatty said. Copy editors and writers are not paid because The Racquette does not have enough money to do so, Beatty said.

In her complaint, Behuniak asked the court to determine whether the paper’s payment policy violated student government’s financial policies, specifically a portion that states, “No person holding an office in an SGA organization shall be paid for carrying out the duties of that office, with the exception of SGA Executive Officers.”

Behuniak declined to comment for this story.

Ryan Williams, SGA President, said the rule is meant to ensure workers are paid for the work they do, not for offices they hold. Williams said part of the problem is that only editorial board members have been receiving pay.

“[There is] basic baseline work that can be done by general members of The Racquette and when they put the work in they should be able to get paid for the work they put in to produce the product,” Williams said.

Beatty said there has been confusion over what the rule means. She said The Racquette’s editorial board members are paid for their work, not their positions.

“I guess the main issue is they think that we are playing favorites and people are getting money that they don’t deserve,” Beatty said. “I asked them what the purpose of that rule was and they said fairness … but they themselves are exempt.”

Williams declined to comment on the fairness of the exemption for student government.

“My job … is to represent the whole of SGA and that’s what the representative branch decided,” he said.

Student government and The Racquette have been in conflict over the paper’s staff wages for years. The school’s student supreme court heard a similar pay policy dispute case between the two groups last year. A section of The Racquette’s constitution dealing with pay was struck, but because the court found “fault on each party,” no injunction was put on The Racquette’s wages and benefits at that time.

In light of the ruling, student government approved a “new plan for payment for the fall 2012 semester, where all members have the ability to get paid for doing duties such as copy editing, layout, fact checking, design, and distribution,” according to the opinion issued by the student court this semester.

Beatty said the paper considered payment policy changes after the student court’s May 2012 decision, but that the fall’s incoming editorial board was not made aware of the importance of carrying out the changes. The Student Government Association did not follow up with the new editorial board, she said, and little actually changed.

Williams said things had “seemed to be on the up-and-up” for The Racquette staff this school year, so student government didn’t intervene until a Racquette staff member complained of noncompliance. SGA then conducted an investigation, Williams said, and after finding evidence that SGA believed supported the complaints, Behuniak filed her complaint.

“We really don’t have any problem with them; their own members brought this to our attention,” Williams said. “We just acted on the information that was brought forward to us and had to appropriately act.”

One Racquette member who did not understand the pay system’s cap on hours brought the system to SGA’s attention, Beatty said. That staff member declined to comment.

Beatty said the Student Supreme Court conducted witness interviews prior to the trial and told her that she could not publish stories about the situation or talk about it with non-Racquette members.

The student court’s unanimous April 2 ruling recommends the removal of The Racquette’s treasurer and puts an injunction on the paper’s wages and benefits, which will remain in place until the 2013-14 Racquette Editorial Board meets “with the SGA Treasury and with the S.E.S. (Student Entertainment Services) Advisor to come up with a set of guidelines for pay based off of work accomplished in the organization.” The Racquette must ensure all its members “have the right to be paid equally;” its new pay system must be simple enough that it “can be checked and monitored by outside individuals;” and The Racquette must review its constitution with student government’s constitution committee.

After these requirements are met, the plan can “be submitted to both legislative bodies of SGA, for whatever action those bodies feel appropriate,” according to the Student Supreme Court opinion.

Beatty said she does not agree with the Court’s finding that “payment appears to still be based on position held not duties accomplished.”

“If the person didn’t do their job, they wouldn’t get paid,” she said. “And it’s happened before where someone didn’t come in and didn’t get money.”

Beatty said she has heard a couple of ideas about what the SGA wants to see happen. One idea she has heard would involve Racquette staff members trading positions throughout the semester so that “everyone get[s] a shot at everything,” Beatty said.

“In the newsroom, that wouldn’t be at all workable,” Beatty said. “We need to be able to have autonomy in how we construct our newspaper.”

Williams said the SGA is going to let The Racquette make its own decisions regarding its new pay plan.

“We’re not going to tell them what to do,” Williams said. “It’s completely up to them to come up with a plan … The goal is to get this done as soon as possible.”

However, “everyone should at least have the base opportunity” for pay, he said.

In the meantime, The Racquette has quit publishing. In an email to Beatty, Supreme Court Chief Justice Tara Bohon said the staff would receive no pay for the rest of the school year, no matter what new payment plan is passed, and that they would not be paid for five issues they published before the Court ruled.

Bohon declined to comment for this article.

In an editorial published Friday, The Racquette staff said they feel they cannot adequately do their jobs until the situation is worked out.

The Racquette hopes to convince the Student Government Association’s legislative branch to amend its financial policies and procedures this week, Beatty said. The amendment would make an exception for all professional clubs on campus ­– not just SGA Executive Officers – and would allow the staff to create a pay system that works better for a newsroom, she said.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.