Living Wage Forum Addresses Student and Staff Concerns

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Many of the concerns expressed by the Living Wage Campaign last year were once more brought to light as students and staff attended the Living Wage Forum Oct. 4, held in the lecture room in Schaefer, with speakers such as Interim Dean of Students Bert Ifill in attendance.

According to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) member Ashok Chandwaney, junior, “living wage” refers to the minimum wage necessary to live in St. Mary’s County and “make ends meet.” This has been an issue on campus for the last decade. Thus far, the Living Wage Campaign has included a sit-in held in 2006, a Christmas Bonus fundraiser in December 2011, and a Board of Trustees meeting at the end of last semester that resulted in a $1,000 raise for all union members on campus.

“It’s not enough,” said Chandwaney. “I’m not an economist, but I do remember from Econ 101 to know how to adjust for inflation and if you do an inflation adjustment calculation on the new salaries and compare them to the old salaries, the school is getting a pretty good deal out of this because they are paying less value money in inflation-adjusted dollars to our staff members now, even after the raise.”

The first speaker of the event was Dean Ifill, who presented the economics aspect of living wage.

“I come here really as more of an analyst,” Ifill said. “I’m not here to represent the administration, and I’m not here to advocate one way or the other; but I want to talk about some of the things surrounding living wage that apply to St. Mary’s that I find particularly intriguing. Looking at living wage, I see three kinds of dualities.”

These three kinds dualities interact, which makes issues like living wage a complexity. The first duality was the definition of a wage. Ifill explained that from an economist’s point of view, a wage could be seen as a price, as a way to determine how to reconcile a demand for a labor and a supply. However, it is also a source of income, and depending on the position you approach the issue from, you can have different perspectives on how you feel the administration should set those wages.

“For the people that work here, there are several labor markets at work that have to some extent determined what the wages are,” Ifill added. “Even people in the same ranks get different incomes, and it’s not because we value one more or less, as much as it is what the market demands. For a number of workers in the union, the market is fairly local – so there are a variety of different wages being offered, in part because of the way the market operates.”

The second duality refers to whether St. Mary’s as an institution operates as a community or an enterprise.  According to Dean Ifill, it is a combination of both considerations, and trying to reconcile those is a challenge, because depending on the perspective, there are differing rules that apply in terms of power and value of labor.

The third duality mentioned involved how decisions are made on this campus, as Ifill stated we have an ideal of “shared government” which means each constituency on this campus has not only a voice but a vote, or at least a feeling that they are included in decision making processes. However, Ifill also pointed out that in an enterprise, there are rules and procedures that do not involve the population, adding to the conflict revolving around this issue.

The forum continued with a reading of statements collected earlier in the year from staff members, highlighting some of the struggles that have resulted from lack in pay. The issues presented included retirement planning difficulties, health care coverage concerns, and countless other examples of the struggle to make ends meet.

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Dave Kung also spoke at the forum, and presented some of the potential solutions that have been discussed. Kung began by explaining how the college budget works and where the money comes from. Thirty percent of the money comes from the state, and over 70 percent comes from the students (particularly from tuition). “This means that if we want to pay something extra, we don’t have a whole lot of places to go to find that extra money,” Kung said. “Tuition has almost doubled in the last decade but where is that money going?”

According to Kung, the majority of cost-drivers are places that the budget does not have much control over or have been agreed on as necessary for the campus; including health care coverage, retirement benefits, fuel costs ($1.5 million are spent every year on fuel oil), a bigger international education department, and new facilities. Pay and benefits take up approximately 55 percent of the budget.

“The vast majority of pay groups on campus have been kept at inflation,” Kung continued. “They’re not part of the problem or the cost. This includes faculty at all levels, and most levels of staff. There have been three groups that have beat inflation in the last decade, and those are the people at the very bottom (because of things like living wage), secretaries to executives, and the executives. Those three groups are the cost drivers on the salary side.”

Kung explained that by looking at this as a math problem, they way in which we set out pay level based on the national labor market is a recipe for inflation. He continued by speaking about upward and downward pressure which balances out faculty pay but does not affect the executives on campus, because they are a small pool of people and therefore do not experience downward pressure. According to Kung, this is normally kept in check is through social forces (such as the Living Wage Campaign), and tax rates.

“I’m looking for a structural solution. The idea that I want to present to you is the idea of 10:1, capping the ratio of pay on campus so that the person making the most on campus does not make more than ten times the person making the least,” Kung said. “This would cause downward pressure on the executives. We are 12.5:1 at the moment, and it won’t be that hard to get us down to 10: 1; you could set the living wage so that it would move with inflation, establish a floor for your wages, and put in place levels in between.”

The forum concluded with an open discussion where students and staff were able to voice concerns and ask questions about potential solutions and plans. According to members of the Students for a Democratic Society, there will be at least two more forums held later in the year to discuss the issue further.

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