By Angela DiGiulio and Martine Burtis
Posted May 10, 2007
On April 27, twelve University of Vermont (UVM) students from the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) ended a five-day hunger strike to urge the university to adopt livable wages for all workers on campus.
The information presented on current compensation packages as well as subsequent media coverage confused the message on whether UVM is paying a livable wage. Some of the media also incorrectly characterized our response to new wage calculations as “being confused” or “unaware” of current wages at UVM.
The reality at UVM is that a gap still exists between the lowest paid UVM workers and a livable wage. Also, other workers contracted by the university to work in our cafeterias or to construct new buildings on campus make less than a livable wage.
In the spring of 2006, a task force convened to study the livable wage issue and to examine the current compensation package at UVM compared to current livable wage figures published by the legislative Joint Fiscal Office (JFO). The task force issued a well-documented study that adjusted the livable wage to account for unique benefits offered by UVM. The task force found that the livable wage figure for UVM would be $12.28 an hour.
Shortly thereafter, UVM Pres. Dan Fogel announced that a recent contract with service and maintenance workers set a base wage of $10.60 an hour that was close enough to the livable wage figure. At that point, Fogel stopped being willing to talk with members of SLAP regarding the task force’s livable wage figure.
As a result, in April SLAP constructed a tent city in front of Royal Tyler Theater to bring more attention to the remaining wage gap at UVM. This was the second tent city in two years to raise awareness on about livable wage issues. With no movement from the administration, SLAP members began a hunger strike on April 23.
In response, the university called upon the JFO to calculate a livable wage adjusted for UVM’s benefits. Unfortunately, once we had time to review the calculations, we found that JFO had deviated from the methodology mandated by the Legislature by deducting the value of benefits that are not included in the basic needs budget.
Tuition remission. UVM offers tuition remission for employees who wish to take courses as individuals or wish to send their children to UVM. However, there is no education expense included in the basic needs budget assumptions that UVM’s tuition remission program can offset. Thus, you cannot lower the livable wage figure based on this benefit. Moreover, while tuition is a major expense for some people, it does not help someone meet their basic needs. You cannot eat tuition!
Long-term disability insurance. Again, this is a valuable benefit for UVM workers, but the basic needs budget does not include any such cost in its assumptions.
Retirement and health care. The revised JFO livable wage figure also contained miscalculations when comparing UVM’s retirement and health care benefits to the basic needs budget.
The revised figures produced by JFO and presented to SLAP and the administration are not true to the approved methodology. We were not confused, especially upon reviewing the newest variation of the calculations, about our commitment to demanding that UVM adopt livable wages and close the wage gap once and for all.
We continue to support the findings and recommendations of the task force. Indeed, it is clear that a significant wage gap still remains at UVM. We would like to clearly state that UVM still needs to address livable wage and workers’ rights issues on campus, some of which they have tried to ignore. Perhaps most importantly, UVM also has not addressed the issue of contracted workers — the poorly paid Sodexho workers (starting pay is around $8 an hour or $9 an hour) or wages of the numerous construction workers working on building projects on campus. Currently, there are no guidelines or standards for how the workers UVM contracts are treated. UVM has made the choice to contract out jobs, like food service workers, and they have been resisting setting any standards for how those workers are treated. UVM has established “green building” standards on all their new construction. We are asking them to adopt fair employment standards for every contractor they hire.
We call upon UVM to uphold their social justice mission and principles and make a good faith effort to reopen discussions on livable wages. To really fulfill the claims that UVM is one of the “best employers in Vermont,” “committed to sustainability” and upholding social justice principles, it must look honestly at what is paid to all workers — contracted and non-contracted workers — and make sure people can meet their basic needs.
Based on partial data from the state, the Vermont Guardian reported in 2005 that 161 UVM workers received public assistance. Hundreds of contracted workers are forced to rely on public assistance because of the low wages paid by UVM’s contractors such as Sodexho. In the end, UVM can either pay their workers a livable wage or shift the cost to taxpayers.
Angela DiGiulio and Martine Burtis are students at the University of Vermont (UVM) and are members of the UVM Student Labor Action Project.