December 19, 2001

Panel Asks Raise for Low-Pay Harvard Workers

By LOUIS UCHITELLE, The New York Times

A study commission forced on Harvard University by protesting students recommended yesterday that the university sharply increase the pay of its janitors, guards and other low-wage workers. But the proposed raises would mean pay that still falls short of the "living wage" the students continue to demand.

For three weeks last spring, nearly 40 students occupied the first floor of Massachusetts Hall, where Harvard's president has his office. Their noisy sit-in, the longest ever at a Harvard building, ultimately led Neil L. Rudenstine, then the president, to appoint the commission.

In acting yesterday, the 19-member panel approved the recommendations unanimously. But several members said Harvard's low-end workers had to earn at least $15 to $20 an hour, rather than the $10.83 to $11.30 that the commission recommended, to support a family in the Boston area adequately. Harvard now pays as little as $8.50 an hour to some of the 970 workers cited in the report.

In a statement, Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard's current president, indicated that he would act on the report in January. He called it a "very constructive document that outlines a promising direction."

The commission, whose members include 12 Harvard professors and administrators, as well as students and workers, decided against proposing a fixed "living wage." Instead, it recommended a floor of $10.83 to $11.30 an hour; increases above that level, for union and nonunion workers alike, would be determined in collective bargaining.

If Mr. Summers agrees, wages will rise immediately to the floor level, at a cost that the committee put at roughly $3 million. That comes to an increase of about $170 a year for each of Harvard's 18,600 students, for whom tuition is now $30,000. Or the money could come from Harvard's endowment, of $20 billion.

The proposed $10.83 to $11.30 would have been the wage level today for janitors, security guards, cafeteria workers, gardeners and the like if employees of outside contractors had not increasingly taken over work once done by Harvard's own employees, said the commission's chairman, Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist. In doing so, they drove down both Harvard and contracting workers' "real" pay, adjusted for inflation, by as much as 20 percent in the 1990's, the commission said. This erosion was pronounced among janitors but did not occur among clerical workers, for example, who did not face competition from outside contractors.

"The early 90's was clearly a time when the university had some financial issues, and it was looking for ways to cut costs," Mr. Katz said of the increased use of contractors.

Unions represent nearly all the low-wage workers still employed by Harvard. The commission recommended that the pay levels reached in collective bargaining with these unions apply not only to the Harvard employees but also to nonunion workers furnished by contractors to do the same tasks.

"You use outside contracting for its good qualities -- the efficiency and expertise that it can inject," Mr. Katz said. "We don't want a lazy inside monopoly. But you have to pay the outsiders at least the same wages and benefits that you provide for inside workers."