August 3, 2001

How Much Should Colleges Pay Their Janitors?

Student protests force administrators to consider issues of social justice and practicality

By MARTIN VAN DER WERF, The Chronicle of Higher Education

It is not just Harvard University, the site of a major sit-in during the spring, that gives low pay to its custodial workers. Other colleges are paying wages that are below the poverty level, or contracting the work out to companies that pay only the prevailing wage. Student organizations have begun distributing information about janitor salaries, and the main trade union that represents custodial workers, the Service Employees International Union, is fanning the flames of discontent. Students and others are beginning to ask the same questions they were asking during the sit-in last spring at Harvard: How, amidst such wealth, can a university pay so little?

Arin Dube, a graduate student who participated in the Harvard sit- in, says he has identified nearly 100 campuses where movements for "living wages" are beginning. The appeal is simple. "Hey, these are the people who clean my bathroom, and cook my food -- the students see that," says Mr. Dube. "And they see the university contracting them out, and not taking any responsibility for them."

Harvard has appointed a committee to look further into the salaries of its lowest-paid workers: janitors and dining-hall workers.

While it is by no means comprehensive, a salary survey conducted by the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers for the 1999-2000 academic year demonstrates a wide disparity in the salary levels of custodial workers. The survey includes salary figures for custodial workers at 195 colleges and universities in the United States. The salaries include both those who work for the colleges and those who work for private employers who have contracts with the institutions. About 15 percent of colleges responding to the survey contract out at least a quarter of their custodial work. While the results represent only a small fraction of the 4,000-plus colleges in the United States, the range of salaries appears to be reflective of custodial salaries around the nation. The salary ranges have been consistent for the past two surveys.

Most of the lowest paying institutions are in the South. Among them are some large, relatively wealthy private institutions, including the University of Miami, the second lowest-paying institution in the survey. The average custodial worker there is paid $13,120 per year, which equates to about $6.30 an hour for full-time workers. Miami was one of 12 colleges and universities that year that paid salaries that were less than $14,150, the federal poverty level in 2000 for a family of three."The trustees have taken a very strong position that we conduct our business on a marketplace basis," says David A. Lieberman, the senior vice president for business and finance at Miami. The university contracts out its custodial work to UNICCO Services Company, a Massachusetts business. "It's their business," says Mr. Lieberman. "We don't raise any questions about their business. We allow them to pay whatever they want to pay as long as they can recruit and retain workers, and still make a buck at the end of the day. "Miami's endowment is valued at about $465-million, but Mr. Lieberman says that is not taken into consideration in setting pay rates. "The biggest factor is 'what is the market for a given type of work?' " he says. "Miami, in this century, and in centuries before, is a city where a lot of immigrants are coming in. These are their first jobs in the United States."

At the other end of the spectrum, three of the four best-paying institutions are community colleges, including the most generous institution in the survey, Schoolcraft College, located in Livonia, a Detroit suburb. Full-time custodial workers there are paid an average of $32,900 a year. There is no doubt that Michigan is a high wage state, and we're in southeastern Michigan, which is union heaven," says Adelard H. (Butch) Raby III, Schoolcraft's vice president for business services. The 10 highest-paying institutions all have custodial workers represented by unions. Over all, 41 percent of the institutions that responded to the survey have unionized custodial workers. Schoolcraft's salaries have risen for the last 20 years at a rate slightly higher than the Consumer Price Index, says Mr. Raby. Before contract negotiations, he compares Schoolcraft's rates with the pay rates of nearby community colleges, but not public universities. "There's no question in my mind that historically, we have paid very competitively in relation to four- year universities," he says. "We've had faculty migrate to us from four-year institutions because we pay better."

Mr. Raby says he is not aware that the same thing has happened with custodians, but added, "If we post a custodial position, we don't have any problem getting people to apply." It's no wonder. At Wayne State University, a public institution about 20 miles away, the average salary for a custodian is $20,183, more than one-third less. When the average salaries at all the institutions that responded to the survey are combined, custodial workers were the lowest paid, with an average annual salary of $20,637. The second lowest-paid category was groundskeepers, at $23,898. "This is a fundamental justice area that universities need to address, or it is going to come back to haunt them," says William P. Quigley, an associate professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans. He is director of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center and of the Loyola Law Clinic, and a researcher on "living wage" laws. "Universities constantly hold themselves up as special assets to the community, and ask for special accommodations and special rules, things like zoning variances and exemptions from taxes," says Mr. Quigley. Their treatment of workers "is part of the report card of how well universities are fulfilling their mission."

"I compare this to segregation," he says. "Are universities going to be ahead of the issue? Or are they going to be behind, and look pitiful in their response?" The movement for a "living wage" is still small, but it has been picking up momentum in some areas of the country. There are now about 60 cities, towns, and counties that have "living wages" that are above the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. The laws generally require private companies with government contracts or companies getting some sort of government subsidy to pay the "living wage" to employees. The pay rates range from $6.25 in Milwaukee County, Wis., to $12 an hour in Santa Cruz, Calif., according to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Loyola requires companies contracting with it to pay a "living wage" to their employees. The institution began setting the wage level almost 20 years ago. It is now $7.19 an hour, says Kristine David, a spokeswoman. The contractors also must pay for health insurance. "Jesuits have a real concern for social justice," says Ms. David, in explaining the university's policy. It is a movement that has not caught on at colleges, however. Higher-education researchers and others familiar with college outsourcing could not come up with the names of any other private colleges that enforce a "living wage" contract, although they believe there are probably some other than Loyola.

Some public colleges and universities must comply with living wage laws if they have been passed by the city or county where the institution is located. The University of Connecticut, for example, ended a student sit-in in May by agreeing to raise wages for janitors who work for a private employer that has a contract with the institution, from $6.50 an hour without benefits to $8.47 with benefits. The institution's action was hardly heroic, though, says Scott Brohinsky, a university spokesman. A new state law would have required the university to give the raises within a year. The raises will cost the university about $1.5- million per year, says Mr. Brohinsky. That is on top of the $2.8-million per year that the university pays to its custodial workers.

Harvard officials have tried to emphasize that the best way to discuss issues of pay and working conditions is in the collective-bargaining process, where those most knowledgeable about the job and its demands meet face to face. Chris R. Christofferson, the associate vice provost for facilities at Stanford University, agreed. "Last year, there was some suggestion that we should intervene in contract negotiations," says Mr. Christofferson. "We decided to watch the situation because we have respect for the collective-bargaining process, and we think it brings out the best result. "In June 2000, union janitors from four Bay Area counties agreed to a contract that raised their starting salaries from $8.04 per hour at the time to $9.39 presently, and $10.04 beginning in June 2002. Contracts with major employers are negotiated on a regional basis. That will bring the salaries at Stanford above the standard of the "living wage" law passed by nearby San Jose. It calls for a minimum wage of $9.50 for workers with health benefits, which these janitors have.

The protesters at Harvard called on the university to pay at least the "living wage" established in Cambridge, Mass., which is $10.25 per hour. A starting custodian at Harvard is paid $9.65 an hour. Joseph Wrinn, a Harvard spokesman, pointed out that one of the problems with the living-wage movement is that wage levels passed by cities are inconsistent. In Boston, where Harvard now has more than half of its campus, the living wage approved by the City Council is $8.23 an hour. Experts on higher- education financing generally agree that there is little incentive for colleges to pay more to lower-end workers. "If you are a university, what is the most important thing? Do you want your staff's compensation to be as high relative to its peers, or your faculty's?" asks Ronald G. Ehrenberg, an economics professor and director of the Cornell University Higher Education Research Institute. "It is actually the reputation of the faculty that makes the reputation of the university, and to get that faculty, you have to pay them well."

Gordon C. Winston, an economics professor and former director of the Williams College Project on the Economics of Higher Education, says jobs at colleges may pay less than some elsewhere in the private sector, but "people kill, and threaten their cousins" in order to get the jobs because of the security of employment and the fringe benefits.

Rice University, which has one of the nation's largest endowments -- $3.4-billion -- paid its custodial employees an average of $14,300 last year, just above the poverty level for a family of three. A university spokesman, Terry Shepard, says the wage levels are based on the market rate in the Houston area, but he said the wages are "somewhat misleading" because "our facilities workers get exactly the same benefits as full professors, including health insurance, a retirement plan, and free tuition for any of their children who attend Rice."

Officials at Harvard, Stanford, Rice, and Miami all agreed that their institution's endowments and total resources should not be taken into consideration when setting wages. Those protesting the wage levels, however, say that endowment sizes are relevant.

"Pointing that out is absolutely a tool," says Benjamin L. McKean, an undergraduate who was one of the leaders of the Harvard sit-in. Among other things, he says, it gets the media's attention. "If I ask for a meeting with the administration, they don't have to meet with me. But if it is, say, Peter Jennings who wants to ask questions, it becomes harder to ignore."

Harvard's $19-billion endowment, the largest of any college, is also a point of leverage when it is pointed out that the university pays less than its less-wealthy neighbors, says Robert Sarosan, a senior union representative for the Service Employees Union Local 254, based in Boston. Some of the starting pay rates at other local colleges, where the union also represents workers, include $11.73 at Boston College, $11.23 at Boston University, and $10.01 at Suffolk University. Last year, Boston College reported an endowment value of $1.04-billion, Boston University, $913-million, and Suffolk, $56-million.

Stephen Lerner, the building-service division director at the national headquarters in Washington for the union -- which has 1.4-million members, making it the largest trade union in the nation -- says he is working closely with students. "What is amazing is the outpouring of students coming to us," says Mr. Lerner. "As we expand our campaign nationally, we're going to be in more areas where major universities are nearby." For example, the union is trying to organize janitors now in northern New Jersey, near Rutgers and Seton Hall Universities, where students are expected to participate in calls for higher wages.

The ties between the union and student protesters are close. Some union officials say they first met some of the student leaders during the annual Union Summer, when labor unions bring in student "interns" to help in efforts to organize workers. Aaron Bartley, who helped lead the sit-in at Harvard, and then graduated from the law school a couple weeks later, plans to go to work for the Service Employees International Union in September.

"It's been a while since student activism has been this closely aligned with labor," says Mr. McKean. "It's never going to be a completely smooth relationship -- we have very different styles. But I think it's important, and to watch it, it should be exciting. I see it only getting bigger."


The following figures are from a study of 195 colleges that responded to a survey conducted by mail and over the Web.

Highest average salaries

Schoolcraft College $32,900
U. of Alaska at Anchorage $32,606
College of the Canyons $32,000
Normandale Comm. College $31,925
U. of Nevada at Reno $31,000
U. of Saint Thomas (Minn.) $31,000

Lowest average salaries

Tennessee State U. $13,000
U. of Miami $13,120
U. of Memphis $13,466
Arkansas State U. $13,500
Birmingham-Southern College $13,520

Salaries where students have protested

Harvard U. $20,072*
U. of California at San Diego $21,840**
U. of Connecticut $17,618*

* Salary level for outside contractors working at these institutions.
** Midpoint of new pay scale.

SOURCES: Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers; Chronicle reporting