SA debates Emergency Powers Act, formalizes support for workers’ union

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EMMA FORD AND KIM LORES / THE FLAT HAT

At the final meeting of the College of William and Mary’s 327th Student Assembly held April 14, senators debated The Emergency Powers Act, which outlines procedural guidelines for suspending SA code during an emergency. In addition, senators passed the William & Mary Workers Union Resolution in a declaration of support for the union’s goals surrounding health care, wages, pay, parking and accessibility concerns on campus.

The Emergency Powers Act, sponsored by Sen. Will Wasson J.D. ’21, amends the Emergency Powers section of the SA Constitution to grant additional, conditional powers to the SA President, SA Vice President and other officers during emergency periods.

The bill stipulates that in extreme emergency situations, senators can pass a resolution with a three-fourths majority in a general or special session in order to grant specific emergency powers to members of the executive branch. The resolution is written with precise language that determines which powers are deemed appropriate under specific emergency scenarios.

According to the bill, these powers may include, but are not limited to, disbursing SA funds, ignoring internal operating procedures, and instituting new standards for SA during the emergency. The bill also states that emergency powers can be taken away at any time if the Senate passes a resolution rescinding these powers. Otherwise, they will last until the emergency has passed.

A post by an anonymous user on ‘Swampy Memes for Twampy Teens’ alluded to the bill, claiming that SA had passed a bill giving the SA President the authority to spend $700,000 of SA’s funds. Senate Chair Anthony Joseph ’21, who will be sworn in as SA President next week, disputed this claim.

“It was brought to our attention that there was a Swampy Memes post regarding the recent bill for the emergency powers that was just passed,” Joseph said. “… The intention is not to give one person absolute authority over $700,000. I cannot stress that enough. That’s not even what the bill is about. The bill is about trying to create a plan of action that, if this happens again, God forbid, we can do that.”

“The intention is not to give one person absolute authority over $700,000. I cannot stress that enough. That’s not even what the bill is about. The bill is about trying to create a plan of action that, if this happens again, God forbid, we can do that.”

Joseph also said that the president would not have access to the full $730,000 entailed in SA’s finances, since a significant portion of that budget is allocated to student organizations through the annual financial allocation process.

The only money that the SA President has access to is SA’s reserve fund, which at the beginning of the 327th Senate held approximately $195,000. However, bill does not guarantee the president full access to the reserve fund, instead saying that the powers the president receives during an emergency are dependent on resolutions passed by the Senate.

Senators can outline in a resolution created for the specific emergency whether the president gets access to any funding along with other powers. Additionally, these powers can be taken away by another Senate vote.

Wasson stated that it was necessary to pass this bill in order to make the COVID-19 Response Resolution constitutional following its passage several weeks ago. Wasson said that passing the Emergency Powers Act would give senators the flexibility to act as they see fit in an emergency without violating SA code in future university-related crises.

Class of 2021 President Aria Austin ’21 expressed concerns that the bill could place an undue burden on the President, Vice President and officers during a time of a crisis.  She suggested that they might be just as indisposed to act as the senators.

“I understand all the points about balancing power and things like that, but my concern with that is, if we’re in an emergency situation, how do we not know that the President and Vice President is going to be in a situation where they can’t attend meetings and do things like that?” Austin said. “I think it’s better that we have many senators that can come to committees or be in the sessions, and we shouldn’t just place it on a select group of people to decide what’s going to happen. I think this is working right now because we’re all working together.”

Since the bill included an amendment to the constitution, it needed three-fourths of the senators to vote in favor of it. The bill ultimately passed, with 18 of 21 senators voting in favor of the resolution.

Senators then passed the William & Mary Workers Union Resolution, sponsored by Sen. Holly Gruntner Ph.D. ’22. The resolution calls for SA to formalize support for the William & Mary Workers Union and its platform, which includes priorities such as creating a living wage, establishing university-subsidized health care, ensuring affordable parking, and constructing accessible campus spaces and buildings for all full-time and graduate workers.

There was considerable discussion among senators regarding the resolution, primarily addressing the bill’s language and the feasibility of union objectives.

Sen. Derek Kernus ‘14 M.B.A. ’20 raised several concerns, including whether the university would actually consider fully subsidizing workers’ health care, and if the bill’s language about providing a living wage was meant to apply only to salaried workers.

“We’ve been doing research about what other universities have done, we’ve been talking to workers all over campus about what their needs are, so a lot of research has gone into this. I did not just throw together this willy-nilly by any means. None of these things would be on the platform if we didn’t think they were achievable.”

“I just want to point out the verbage out pay for the annual living wage,” Kernus said. “When it says 20+ hours per week, and you’re saying that all workers 20+ hours or more should be paid at least $28,000 a year, that’s not the equivalent of $15 an hour. That’s more like $26 an hour, for someone who’s working 20 or 21 hours a week.  That’s much higher than the minimum wage, so I think you should be looking at reconsidering that as well.”

Sen. Zie Medrano ’20 agreed with Kernus’s concern. The bill was ultimately amended so that the $28,000 wage request would only apply to all salaried and stipended workers working 20+ hours a week.

Along with other members of the Workers Union, Gruntner directly responded to Kernus’s claims about the possible feasibility of some aspects of the bill, saying that this resolution was heavily researched.

“Respectfully, we’ve been thinking about this for a very long time, and we’ve been talking to administrators about this for a very long time,” Gruntner said. “We’ve been doing research about what other universities have done, we’ve been talking to workers all over campus about what their needs are, so a lot of research has gone into this. I did not just throw together this willy-nilly by any means. None of these things would be on the platform if we didn’t think they were achievable.”

At the end of the meeting, senators honored the work of Associate Director of Student Leadership Development Trici Frederick, who is leaving her role in SA after serving as an advisor to senators for the past several years. Senators thanked her for advice and support over the years and encouraged her to visit future SA meetings.