Applying Livable Wage at the University of Vermont

Currently, the possibility of instituting Livable Wage as a policy for all UVM employees is an issue that concerns the Student Government, the Administration, SLAP, Good jobs @UVM, the Peace and Justice Center, and every individual who is a student or employee of the university.

The exact number of university employees earning a wage below livable wage is contested. According to SLAP and the Vermont Center for Peace and Global Justice, there are 95 employees not receiving a Livable Wage, according to President Fogel, there are “a few dozen.”

When asked about the discrepancy in the number of employees receiving less than Livable Wage, Michael Gower, the Vice President for Finance and Administration, commented “Frankly, I can’t believe either one [of the numbers]” and pointed out that there needs to be a definition of what constitutes Livable Wage for a UVM employee.

The SGA committee on livable wage, chaired by Vice President Katie Carl, will be meeting with Mr. Gower and other members of the administration on November 22 to discuss the issue of livable wage.

“One thing to do on [November] 22 is to come up with a definition” and to “agree on a specific number” said Gower.

Once that is established, it will be possible to look through employee records and find out who is below livable wage. Gower pointed out that UVM employees receive some of the best benefits in the state, including a health plan with a salary sensitive premium, retirement benefits, tuition remission, and life insurance. He would like to value these benefits as part of the livable wage.

The Vermont Livable Wage Campaign Director for the Peace and Justice Center, Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, opposes Gower’s desire to define a UVM specific livable wage, “[it is] dangerous when employers define their own livable wage.” She stressed the fact that the official state-accepted Livable Wage is put out by the Joint Fiscal Office, an impartial third party. “The great thing about the JFO [livable wage] is that it is based on hard data and government standards,” said Mulvaney-Stanak.

Professor Stephanie Seguino, the Chair of the Economics Department, and Professor Elaine McCrate, also in the Economics Department, expressed confidence in the Joint Fiscal Office’s calculation of the Livable Wage. “I have a great deal of confidence in how the budget is constructed,” said Seguino, “[it is] definitely accurate.”

“These [numbers] come from a well documented government source, and when this does not exist, they go to the private sector,” said McCrate.

“It is unacceptable for UVM to try and redefine the livable wage,” said Mulvaney-Stanak, “[the] numbers are put out by the state of Vermont…[they] are good enough for other employers. Is UVM better than the State of Vermont?”

One concern about implementing a livable wage policy at UVM is the possibility of an increase in tuition.

According to Vice President Gower, it is “very unlikely” that livable wage could be achieved without an increase in tuition. “Any new general cost will have to be paid for either by expense reductions or revenue sources,” said Gower.

According to Professor Seguino, there are three possible ways that the University could achieve livable wage: a rise in the cost of tuition, increased productivity, and a redistribution of salaries, or a combination of the three.

Increased productivity is a benefit of livable wage, because providing a livable wage encourages a more loyal and efficient workforce with less employee turn over, according to Seguino. For Seguino, there are both ethical and economic reasons to implement livable wage. “If we care about democracy, if we care about being compassionate human beings, we have to care about paying livable wage,” said Seguino.

Professor McCrate sees livable wage as a feasible policy for UVM: “With better management we could provide a high quality education and livable wage without increasing the cost of tuition,” said McCrate.

Vice President Gower believes that redistributing salaries would “absolutely” hurt UVM’s ability to remain competitive among other top tier universities. He thinks that redistribution is “theoretically possible” but remarked that “I’m not sure I could point to any faculty or staff member who would want to redistribute and stay at the university.”

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak sees achieving Livable Wage for all university employees as the first goal, and after that Livable Wage goals can be set for all companies contracted out by the university, such as Sodexo and Pizzagalli.

It is “UVM’s role as a public institution to pay Livable Wage” said Mulvaney-Stanak. One reason for this is that there are University employees who qualify for federal and state public assistance programs. “Public employers need to pay livable wage to save public assistance, taxpayers are subsidizing wages at UVM,” said Mulvaney-Stanak.

The City of Burlington pays livable wage to all municipal employees and the State of Vermont pays livable wage to all full time employees. The city of Burlington also only contracts out to companies that pay all employees livable wage

Gower pointed out that in terms of Pizzagalli (the construction company contracted by UVM), livable wage “is not an issue with construction jobs, primarily because of the significant competition for skilled labor.” This is not the case for Sodexo employees that receive an average of $8/hour according to the Peace and Justice Center. “If we passed along a required cost, it would go into the food cost, there’s no two ways about that” said Gower of requiring Sodexo to pay livable wage.

The role of the SGA Livable Wage Committee is to gather facts and information from all sides and then present that information to the senate before the vote on the livable wage resolution.

The resolution was written last year and tabled because the senate did not feel they had sufficient information to vote on it. Vice President Carl was impressed by the “sincere and great presentation” that the Vermont Center for Peace and Justice made to the Senate, and is hoping to get a better understanding of the value of the additional benefits that UVM employees receive at the November 22 meeting between her committee and the administration. She hopes that the Senate will vote on the issue before Winter break.