December 19, 2001

Harvard Study Urges Pay Hike For Poorest Workers

By DAVID ABEL, The Boston Globe

A long-awaited report on wages at Harvard calls for the university to immediately boost the wages of its lowest-paid workers above the "living wage" demanded by hundreds of protesters last spring.

The report, seven months in the making, is Harvard's answer to a chaotic three-week protest that filled Harvard Yard with tents and saw 28 students occupying the university's main administrative building. The blunt criticisms of Harvard labor practices mark the first major challenge for new president Lawrence H. Summers, who took office six weeks after the students finally agreed to leave Massachusetts Hall.

According to the report, Harvard has nearly 1,000 employees who earn less than $10.68 an hour, the living wage set by the city of Cambridge. It recommends Summers increase their pay to between $10.83 and $11.30 an hour. It also calls for the university to pay contract employees no less than union members, but stopped short of one key demand of last spring's protesters: Create a wage "floor" by permanently pegging Harvard wages to the cost of living in Cambridge.

The committee's recommendations are not binding. Yesterday, Summers called higher wages for Harvard's lowest-paid employees "a goal I support," but said he would not take action for another four weeks, after a comment period.

Despite the pay increase recommended by the committee, the students who occupied Massachusetts Hall last spring said the committee snubbed them by not backing a wage floor. And they vowed a new round of campus protests.

"The Harvard community has come out by the thousands, demanding a simple policy: a permanent wage floor so that when the TV cameras go away, there's a floor that guides negotiations," said Aaron Bartley, a former law student who spent 21 days in the building and now represents 800 university janitors in Local 245 of the Service Employees International Union. "Students are on break now. But if there aren't changes in the report, there will be mass protests over the next few months when students come back."

In lieu of a wage floor, the 19-member committee of administrators, professors, students, and workers called for Harvard to establish a "parity wage policy" that would guarantee subcontracted employees the same minimum wage as union members.

As of Sept. 1, Harvard directly employed 392 people who earned less than $ 10.68 an hour. That number is a small minority of Harvard's 14,500-strong workforce.

But a majority of the university's "outsourced" employees, who work at Harvard but are paid by outside contractors, earn less than that amount: 579 of 919 workers. A parity policy would ensure that the contract workers earned at least the minimum wage for university workers, all of whom are represented by a union.

The 131-page report also painted a sweeping picture of a university whose lowest-paid workers are worse off now than in the mid-1990s. Adjusted for inflation, the salaries of Harvard's low-wage employees - mostly janitors, security guards, and parking attendants - saw a 10 to 15 percent drop between 1994 and 2001.

The committee blamed Harvard's practice of hiring more contract workers - and using those lower-paid workers as a negotiating tool to keep union wages down.

But it stopped short of recommending a permanent living-wage policy for all employeees. Such a policy, it found, would have "tackled the symptoms and not the causes" of the problem of low wages. As long as outside contractors remain a threat to Harvard employees, the committee argued, any wage floor would end up becoming a wage ceiling.

"Had a living wage . . . been in place, the lowest wage rates for service workers at Harvard would not have fallen below that minimum-wage level, but they probably would not have risen above it either," the report said. "So long as contractors could pay the minimum wage, the wages of Harvard workers could not remain much above that minimum."

The committee was unanimous in recommending higher wages and an end to contract jobs that pay less than union jobs. But it split on the best way to ensure workers could maintain an adequate standard of living. Eight of the committee members thought the university should establish a living wage as well as ban the practice of contracting out jobs.

But the majority frowned on the idea. "We believe the right solution is to fix the system, not gut the system," said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor who chaired the committee.

In a conference call with reporters, he said the majority of committee members felt that outsourcing preserves the benefits of competition while "a parity wage preserves the benefits of competition without creating such downward pressure on pay."

But many students and Harvard employees resisted Katz's formula.

"While the committee's recommendations include some improvements, they fall far short of what it takes for workers to make ends meet," said Madeleine Elfenbein, a member of the Harvard Living Wage Campaign, which plans several protests today at the offices of Harvard corporation members across the country. "Without a living wage, the committee's proposal of a 'parity wage' is still a poverty wage."

Jean Phane, 41, a custodian who has earned $9.65 an hour at Harvard Medical School for the past five years, worried about having enough money to take care of his 84-year-old mother.

"We'll take anything we can get to improve our salary," Phane said. "But this report does nothing to promise us future raises to account for inflation, and it does nothing to give us job security, health care, and respect from our bosses."