Wage struggle continues

About 125 of the 250 workers at the University of Vermont earn less than “basic budget needs,” according to the preliminary report from the Basic Needs and Equitable Compensation Task Force. Out of those earning less than “basic budget needs,” 60 percent are women, according to the report. The Basic Needs and Equitable Compensation Task Force was created last April by President Fogel in response to a year full of student activism on campus. There are 19 members; five faculty, four students, five staff, and five administrative officers. The task force was charged with four tasks. The first is to make recommendations regarding the principles and policies that guide the University’s workforce. The second is to compile data regarding wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment. The third task is to solicit the opinions of interested students, faculty, and staff. The fourth is to research, respect, and understand the collective bargaining process of unionized employees and the administration. Currently, the University pays market labor price, which is determined by the Vermont Legislature. Each individual’s wages are based on job characteristics and their particular qualifications. In addition, the University provides a benefits package, with lower salaried employees paying a smaller percent of the premium. In order to provide employees with livable wages, the task force recommends that the University trump the market price in Vermont for those workers classified as earning less than basic budget needs. The University would therefore establish its own wage policy based on the basic needs of a single person household. Those employees that are classified as earning a suitable wage would continue to be paid market price. The estimated cost of these implementations is about $1 million. Presently there are two options to raise the money required. The first is to pay the administration less. The second is to increase tuition. “There is no free lunch, the money has to come from somewhere, either higher tuition or lower wages,” said Tom Gustafson, vice president for student and campus life and member of the Basic Needs and Equitable Compensation Task Force. The first option would require a shift in wages paid to all employees at the University. “The University has a pool of money used for employees, they can reallocate within that pool of money they give for staff, faculty, and administrators,” said professor Jane Knodell, chair of the Basic Needs and Equitable Compensation Task Force. This would mean lower wages for faculty that are currently paid market price, in order to pay more for those that don’t make “basic needs” wages. At the same time, however, Knodell is doubtful that the money could come all from one place; meaning that if it doesn’t come from administrators, it must come from tuition. “I think only the students can answer this question. It’s a test of the solidarity of our campus,” Knodell said. “If you think that it’s wrong for staff to be paid less, it’s easy to say I support this, but are you willing to make the sacrifice.” According to the draft of the preliminary report of the Basic Needs and Equitable Compensation Task Force, altering payment lessens the gap between older, more skilled workers, and newer less skilled workers creating a poor sense of morale. Gustafson is fearful that if wages are reallocated for all staff, as Knodell suggests, the University will not attract the type of top-notch employees they are currently looking for. “I think it’s pretty dangerous to ignore the market for any employees, in any business when you don’t pay, you are not going to attract viable employees,” Gustafson said. A final report will be issued to the President’s office by the end of September.