Members of the undergraduate student government are set to see their stipends increase by about 90 percent starting this September.
The Undergraduate Students Association Council decided to increase councilmember stipends from $355 to $672 on Aug. 6 in a 8-1-0 vote.
The vote also proportionally raised the cap on stipends that officially registered student group leaders and some other members of USAC can receive. Funding for USAC stipends comes from mandatory student fees, which the undergraduate student body has voted for in the past and which have typically been underutilized.
Surpluses from student fees have been hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years.
Registered student organizations and USAC offices can choose to set aside some of their funds for officer stipends. Stipends vary between USAC offices and student groups, and some students receive no financial compensation for their work.
With the councilmembers’ compensation increase, the cap for student group leaders increased proportionally, from $275 to $521, according to USAC funding guidelines.
Following the increase, the stipend cap will be $379 for USAC chiefs of staff and $284 for program directors.
Councilmembers said their previous stipends could prevent students who do not have stable finances from serving on the council, since a student’s time commitment to USAC could conflict with holding another paying job.
After discussing the stipend increase for about an hour at last week’s meeting, the council decided it thought USAC members deserve higher stipends, even if not all councilmembers agreed on the way the decision was made.
Cultural Affairs Commissioner Jessica Trumble said that the stipend raise for student group leaders and members of her staff affected her decision to vote to increase stipends.
But the stipend increase for councilmembers dominated council discussions in its recent meetings.
USAC Internal Vice President Avi Oved was the only councilmember to vote against the increase during the initial vote. He said he did not feel comfortable increasing his own stipend because he thought it was a conflict of interest and he did not want to use money that could potentially go to student groups.
General Representative Sunny Singh, Financial Supports Commissioner Lauren Rogers and Academic Affairs Commissioner Darren Ramalho did not vote because they were absent from the meeting two weeks ago. USAC President John Joanino did not vote because the president does not usually vote unless there is a tie.
Joanino said he thinks concern about USAC’s accessibility to students was at the core of the stipend increase decision, and that the issue should not have become political.
“It really was a politically unfavorable decision, but it’s one that has been neglected for too long,” he said. “The council saw it as a way to reverse a dangerous trend.”
To minimize the effect increased stipends could have on student group funding and student fee surpluses, Joanino said he is looking to pull from alternative sources of funding to pay for the raise, such as requesting that Associated Students UCLA cover the cost of stipend increases for this coming year.
Robert Williams, the executive director of ASUCLA, could not be reached for comment.
Oved said he thought the council’s decision was premature, but he did not motion to repeal the decision at last week’s meeting because he did not think he had the support to move the council’s conversation in a different direction.
“When you have 10 individuals plus administration telling you ‘no’ and pressuring you to vote in a certain way, it’s almost impossible to have your voice feel justified,” he said.
USAC’s administrative representatives – who proposed increasing stipends to the council – said they strongly support USAC’s decision and encourage councilmembers not to change their votes.
Roy Champawat, director of the UCLA Student Union, said he thinks the stipend increase was remedial, and there is no reason why councilmembers should not receive the larger salary, given it is a reasonable increase.
“Why should they continue to suffer under an unreasonably low wage?” he said in an interview.
Champawat said he thinks the claim that councilmembers have engaged in a conflict of interest does not override the argument that councilmembers deserve larger stipends starting this year.
“Often conflicts of interest issues are resolved through their disclosure, declaration (and review,)” he said. “The conflict is in the light of day, and there’s no real evidence that (the decision) was intended to be an action to selfishly take care of (coucilmembers’ personal interests).”
Champawat added that funding for USAC is set to increase this year by about $18,600 because of increased student enrollment. The total cost of the entire stipend increase is unclear for now, because the budget for student groups and all USAC offices is not yet set.
Facilities Commissioner Armen Hadjimanoukian said he felt uncomfortable with the amount of student pushback council received against the stipend increase vote and that he would have voted against the increase if a motion had been made to repeal the decision.
Hadjimanoukian said that he did not motion against this year’s stipend increase at the meeting because multiple councilmembers said the pay raise would allow them to better run their offices and help students this year.
“If council genuinely feels (the stipend increase) is going to make this upcoming year more productive, then (the decision) is warranted,” he said.
Multiple councilmembers said they had to turn down jobs this year or work fewer hours outside USAC to serve in student government. Community Service Commissioner Omar Arce said he is about $20,000 in debt and works about 40 hours a week in his council position.
Student Wellness Commissioner Savannah Badalich said an increased stipend this year would allow her to spend more time on projects she wants to pursue in USAC and less time working as a nanny. Badalich said her family came upon financial difficulties late last year and that her parents told her she would have to keep an outside job if she wanted to serve on USAC.
Oved said he thinks USAC needs to take steps to ensure students are part of the decision-making process. He said that the decision could be revisited in the fall when the entire council is present at meetings and more of the student body is on campus.
“The issue wasn’t the stipend increase itself,” he said. “It was the outreach and not having students involved.”
Councilmembers said they plan to reach out to the student body and explain their decision through a submission to The Bruin and a town hall meeting.
Contributing reports by Hong Chen, Bruin contributor.