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University of Virginia: A Living Wage
The Cavalier Daily
Charlie Tyson

October 14, 2010
View the Original Article

One student group renews the debate about how much the University should pay its employees

At a Sept. 22 public forum about living wage, Newcomb Hall’s South Meeting Room quieted as fourth-year College student Greg Casar read aloud a statement from an anonymous University employee.

“The students don’t really see,” Casar read. “They all go back home for the holidays in the winter when we’re up here at five or six o’clock in the morning chipping away at ice in 15-degree weather. We’re essential workers; we make this place run, but we’re at the bottom of the pay scale.”

The forum was part of the University’s ongoing “Class Matters” lecture series, an interdisciplinary venture exploring the intersection between economic issues and social justice. Casar is a student leader of Workers and Students United, an organization whose primary aim is to win a “living wage” — a wage package that meets area-specific living costs as well as expenses involved in supporting a family — for University employees.

“I’m what they call ‘old school,’” the statement continued. “I don’t have all the computer skills that new jobs require. This is my job; it’s gonna be my job. And I’ve got to work this job all day because I’ve got a family.”

As English Prof. Susan Fraiman, the panel historian for the Sept. 22 meeting, noted, the campaign for a living wage at the University is not new. The current effort led by WASU is the latest phase of a movement dating back to the 1998 founding of the Labor Action Group, which first began the living wage campaign at the University.

“Today’s living wagers do not have to start from scratch or feel that they are bucking tradition,” Fraiman said during her remarks at the forum. “There is, in fact, an honorable tradition of campus activism to build on — a history of activism that is, indeed, rather recent.”

Fourth-year College student Erin Franey, another student leader of WASU, dated living wage activism at the University back even farther — to a 1969 protest at the Rotunda. Admission of women to the College was the protest’s central issue, she said, but students also demonstrated for other causes, including a living wage.

More recently, the University’s living wage activism brings to mind an April 15, 2006, sit-in at Madison Hall that led to the arrests of 17 students and an anthropology professor. The living wage movement was forced underground after the sit-in, Franey said.

This current phase of activism ignited in April, when WASU lobbied Charlottesville City Council to pass an ordinance urging the University to pay its employees a living wage of $11.44. Casar said the $11.44 figure comes from the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit Washington, D.C. think tank, and is specific to the cost of living in Charlottesville.

Although City Council did not pass a University-specific resolution at its May 3 meeting, it demonstrated its support for living wage by reaffirming a June 2000 resolution encouraging Charlottesville’s employers to increase the amount they pay their workers.

“It’s really nothing new,” Councilor Kristin Szakos said during a May 4 interview with The Daily Progress. “We’ve been on record urging employers in the region to pay a living wage.”

According to its May 3 minutes, the council decided to communicate support for living wage with a letter to the University, Charlottesville’s largest employer.

The University’s minimum wage for direct employees now stands at $10.14. Susan Carkeek, vice president and chief human resources officer at the University, said the University is not currently in a position to raise that number.

The University’s appropriation from the state general fund has been cut by a total of $51.5 million since the 2007-08 fiscal year, and more cuts are expected, Carkeek said in an e-mail. Based on these circumstances, the University would not be able increase salary without decreasing employment, she explained.

“The University has a strong history of not laying people off during difficult financial times,” she said. “While other universities around the state have laid off employees in both prior and the most recent budget crises, U.Va. has been steadfastly loyal to [its] employees, adhering to a policy of not using layoffs to balance the budget.”

Carkeek noted that jobs at the University continue to be hotly vied for ­­— last year, the University received 58,000 applications to fill 647 vacant positions. She emphasized that between bonuses — this year, for instance, the University is awarding a 3-percent bonus to all employees, the equivalent of 30 cents per hour for entry-level workers — as well as benefits and paid time off, the University has treated its employees well.

“What the University and the students have in common is wanting the best for our employees,” she said. “We have generous and comprehensive health benefits and a strong retirement plan.”

The University also offers its employees opportunities for career development. Carkeek described such tools for advancement as the University’s “core mission.” Employees have $2,000 per year to further their education at any accredited institution, she said.

“We want to help employees pursue careers beyond entry-level jobs,” Carkeek explained. “One program we are particularly proud of is our Essential WorkSkills program [a training program designed for entry-level employees]. Upon completion of the program, employees receive a $600 per year salary increase, the equivalent of 29 cents per hour.”

Yet Casar said many employees cannot take advantage of such benefits because the University hires outside companies to work in food services, construction and other areas. These companies do not have to abide by the University’s stated minimum wage of $10.14. “Hundreds of contracted workers are paid as little as $7.50 an hour while working full-time jobs,” Casar said. “The administration wipes its hands clean” from any responsibility in regards to contracted employees.

WASU’s renewed efforts have largely come since University President Teresa A. Sullivan has taken the reins. “People who for the last two years have mostly been sitting around on the floor of people’s living rooms chatting about [living wage] but not taking decisive action” felt re-inspired, and the movement gained new strength, Franey said.

“We are really eager to engage with [Sullivan] in a positive and respectful way,” she said. The group hopes to meet with Sullivan before Thanksgiving to decide how to move forward on the issue of living wage.