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Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

Supporting staff means supporting fair wages

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">Pia Contreras</a></span>

Tayler* started working full time at Middlebury right after high school, with a starting wage of just over $8 an hour. Twenty-one years later, through Middlebury's compensation program, they are making $14 an hour. A single parent, they find themselves in line at the local food bank several times a month to make ends meet, and HOPE Middlebury helps Christmas come together for their child. Many of Tayler’s fellow service workers at Middlebury also have second jobs, an option unavailable to those without childcare or other support mechanisms.

How did we get here as an institution, where over 20 years of service and dedication to Middlebury still merits only a poverty wage? Sure, endowment woes and a poor job market play a role, but one of the deeper problems is more insidious.

In the last 20 years, Middlebury has prioritized faculty wage increases over those of staff. Every year, when possible, a sum of money is added to the Middlebury budget for salary increases, which is then distributed to faculty and staff as a percentage increase of their current wage. By my calculations, in most years, rather than dividing wage increases equally between faculty and staff, faculty have gotten a larger percentage increase than staff. In a particularly egregious example from 2001, faculty received an average pay increase of 7.5%, while staff saw only 4.3%. Inflation that year as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was about 3.4%, so faculty got over a 4% raise above inflation, staff less than 1%.

More recently, in both 2019 and 2020, faculty saw a 4% increase, while staff saw a mere 2%. However, inflation was greater than 2%, so the value of the staff raise was ultimately canceled out, while faculty wages increased over inflation. 

Small changes in the CPI have proportionally larger impacts for lower-wage workers. The cost of items that factor into the CPI can vary by year, but a seemingly minor change in some items can tear a budget apart. For example, a 50-cent increase in the price of gas may barely affect more affluent families, but these same changes can be crippling for a service worker with little discretionary income within their budget.

On average, faculty have gotten a 1.4% greater yearly compensation increase compared to staff in the raise pool. Cumulatively, from 2000 until last year, faculty received a 113% increase in salary, while staff have only seen a 73% bump. Subtract inflation, and faculty net a 40% increase, staff only 13%.

So, for example, a staff member making $50,000 two decades ago is now making $86,500, while a faculty member at the same starting pay would now be making $106,725. 

Middlebury pays staff by length of service — the longer you work here, the greater your wage. Had staff wages not been increased to $14, staff like Tayler who had been working at Middlebury for 20 years would now be making $13.84. If they had received compensation increases at the same rate faculty did, they would instead be earning $17.04. Adjusted for inflation, $14 in 2021 is the equivalent of $9 in 2001. 

So, in our pay-by-tenure system, that's only an additional five cents a year over inflation for all of their experience, commitment and dedication. But the starting wage for a new employee at Middlebury is now $14 an hour, so we aren't valuing experience and commitment at all. Imagine working your whole life at an institution and getting the same pay as someone who just walked off the street. When Middlebury raised the starting wage for lower-paid service jobs, it caused this wage compression, where a range of pay for work is now non-existent and independent of the length of service. 

How can we do better?

Middlebury has proven a strong commitment to staff, seen not only by wage continuity during the Covid-19 shutdowns but by the recent staff reductions during workforce planning without resorting to layoffs. We need to build upon and strengthen this commitment, by first fixing wage compression for affected staff. Long-time workers at Middlebury deserve to be paid more than new hires and should see a one-time increase in pay under our pay-by-tenure system. This needs to be the top priority for the next fiscal year when the Budget Advisory Committee prioritizes items in the budget.

All employees of Middlebury need to commit to the "ongoing alignment of staffing and budgets to the strategic goals of the enterprise," but staff cannot do this without our faculty and administrative partners. Faculty and the administration need to decide, post-Covid, where their values lie, and reflect those values in the budget. The solution is not to reduce the number of staff positions, allowing the excess work to roll onto those who remain. Will we go back to pre-pandemic travel and entertainment spending, where catered lunches for departments are prepared by workers who leave work and head to food shelf lines? Or do we build on our current successes some departments have seen in workforce planning and together determine what sacrifices need to be made to return to our student-centric mission?

Staff also need a voice in this process and should have representation on the appropriate faculty committees, including Faculty Resources. Staff representation on the Budget Advisory Committee has been a welcome step, but it is not enough.  After a recent Board of Trustee financial decision, the Middlebury AAUP chapter stated the decision was made "without any input from either Faculty Council or the Resources Committee so that also brings up serious concerns about 'faculty governance' if none of the relevant faculty bodies were consulted." The last 20 years of faculty wage increases show that staff need their own voice, without relying on faculty governance.

Lastly, let's think of the hundreds of invisible staff cooking meals, cleaning buildings, and doing countless other tasks that keep our institution running. Someone at Middlebury considerably smarter than I once told me if we were brave as an institution, we'd make our starting pay $20/hour, rather than the $14 we pay now. As Karen Miller said, Middlebury needs to become an "employer of choice for the next generation." If faculty and the administration want to achieve this distinction, they need to ensure everyone at Middlebury is fairly compensated.

*Editor’s note: “Tayler” is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of a staff member.

Tim Parsons is the college’s landscape horticulturist.