October 23, 2001

Harvard Custodians are Making Less, Study Finds

By PATRICK HEALY and JOE SPURR, The Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE - Although Harvard University became a significantly wealthier institution in the 1990s, the median wages for its lowest-paid workers - custodians and security guards - lagged behind inflation and are now just under $10 an hour, a new Harvard study finds.

About 82 percent of janitors earn less than $10 an hour compared with 20 percent in 1994. Among security guards, 58 percent get less than $10 per hour, up from 19 percent.

While those workers make up only a tiny percentage of Harvard's payroll, their economic well-being has become the most divisive policy issue on campus this year.

Thirty students occupied the office of former president Neil Rudenstine for three weeks last spring to demand that he support a "living wage" of at least $ 10.50 an hour for school employees. The protest ended only after Rudenstine appointed a committee to recommend whether Harvard should accept the demand.

The committee, working under a Dec. 19 deadline, yesterday released the study to give Harvard a snapshot of its work so far. The report, rich in data but lacking any recommendations, also served as a stepping-off point for a public forum held last night by the panel.

Even before the lively discussion began, the committee found itself at the center of controversy. One of its 20 members, economics professor Caroline Hoxby, resigned from the panel yesterday after blasting her colleagues as biased and beholden to the student protesters.

In a letter addressed to the Harvard Crimson, Hoxby said the committee had not sought any testimony from opponents of a living wage.

"I believe that the [committee] has neither the process nor the principle to fulfill its duties," Hoxby wrote. "I am ashamed to admit that my university does not currently have an atmosphere that fosters the free exchange of ideas on this topic."

At last night's forum, committee members emphasized that they were open to all points of view. One scheduled speaker, a senior, did criticize the idea of a minimum wage, while most other speakers in the audience of 250 spoke in favor of it.

Molly McOwen, another senior who is active in labor issues on campus, said the new data show "without question that living conditions are bad and getting worse."

"Harvard workers work 16-hour days, not because they want to, but so they can scrape by," McOwen said.

Richard Freeman, an economics professor, said that while the factors driving Harvard wages were complex, the bottom-line issue for him is that the university, with its $18 billion endowment, can afford to increase the salaries of the lowest-paid workers.

"We're not adding zeroes onto salaries here. We would be adding dollars to wages," Freeman said. "We are a leader in so many ways - why not this?"

Graham O'Donoghue, the senior who opposed the wage, said student protesters have resorted to emotionally moving appeals for better pay that should not dictate Harvard's compensation policies.

"Most students who oppose the living wage campaign are too busy attending lectures, writing papers, and taking their exams to organize activist groups on the other side of this issue," O'Donoghue said.

Committee members say they have been moved by stories of struggles of low-paid workers, but are also influenced by the economic trends that have shaped the university's pay policies.

Last spring, 1,003 workers at Harvard earned less than the $10.50-an-hour wage championed by the protesters, according to the study. The committee, however, has used a slightly higher benchmark for a living wage of $10.68.

Adjusted for inflation to 2001 dollars, the median hourly pay of custodial employees was $10.96 in 1994, but only $9.55 this year. For dining service workers, the wage changed from $12.65 in 1994 to $12.35 this year, and for security and parking guards, it went from $14.31 to $9.58.

Of the 1,003, Harvard directly employs 424 - or about 3 percent of its 14,352-member work force. The other 579 work for contractors in the three lowest-paying fields - custodial, dining, and security services, which employ a total of 919 workers.

Between 1994 and 2001, the time period studied by the committee, the number of low-wage employees has risen from 170 to 424.

Custodians make up about two-thirds of all workers paid less than $10.68. Their pay is relatively low, the study says, because the university froze wages in 1996 for current employees, and lowered salaries for new ones, to match a union pay contract that covered outside custodians.

By privatizing some custodial services and forcing competition for contracts, the university has saved some costs while increasing the quality of services, the study finds.

The demographic profile of this group has also changed since 1994, the period of time studied by the committee: Custodians today are far more likely to be Hispanics, immigrants, and high school dropouts.

University president Lawrence H. Summers, himself an economist and former US treasury secretary, said he will announce a decision on the wage issue after the committee submits its final report and recommendations.