December 19, 2001

Report Blasts Harvard Pay Scale; Lower-Wage Workers Can't Afford Necessities, Panel Says

By PAMELA FERDINAND, The Washington Post

BOSTON -- Harvard University, the world's wealthiest institution of higher learning, must stop paying lower-wage workers so little that they have difficulty making ends meet and cannot afford basic necessities such as health insurance, a highly critical report released today by a university advisory committee warns.

The Harvard Committee on Employment and Contracting Practices found that the university employs 392 workers -- custodians, food service workers and security guards -- who earn less than $ 10.68 per hour, the official "living wage" in Cambridge. Contractors who provide on-campus services pay an additional 579 workers less than $ 10.68 per hour, the report found.

While Harvard custodians earn an entry-level wage of $ 9.65 per hour, custodians at some other area colleges earn more than $ 14.

"It is the unanimous conclusion of the committee that Harvard's current wage and contracting practices for lower-paid service workers fall short of meeting the university's obligation of being a good employer," the panel said.

Established in response to a three-week student sit-in last spring, the committee recommended that Harvard raise pay immediately and require contractors to provide on-campus workers wages that are at least equivalent to the collectively bargained rate for university employees, among other measures.

The university also should institute a monitoring system to maintain wages and adopt a code of conduct to erode a climate of "two Harvards" -- one of haves, and one of have-nots, they said.

The recommendations fall short of demands by student labor activists and others that Harvard institute a living wage standard and ban outside contracting. But the report represents a serious financial and ethical challenge to a university whose endowment exceeds $ 18 billion, and to its newly installed president, former treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers.

The document carries added significance because it was the work of a 19- member committee that included unprecedented representation from faculty members, senior administrators, students and unionized workers.

"We believe that the solution here is to try to fix the system, not gut the system," said economics professor Lawrence F. Katz, who chaired the committee. "I would hope that the president takes these recommendations very seriously."

In a prepared statement today, Summers agreed with the panel's goal of improving the economic circumstances of the campus's lowest paid service workers, but he did not give any indication of how he believes that should be done. At the committee's request, Summers said he will defer action for one month to accept further comment.

The living wage is likely to remain a source of contention, observers said. The report advocates paying contract and part-time workers at least the same wage that unionized employees have achieved through collective bargaining, rather than banning outside contracting. It estimates raising lower-paid workers' wages to as much as $ 11.30 per hour could cost $ 2.4 million to $ 3.7 million yearly, money that cannot necessarily come from the school's endowment, which is restricted.

Some said the report did not go far enough. Reaction on campus is expected to be muted today because most students have left for winter break, but student labor activists said they are planning a protest nevertheless.

Students and other critics, including Harvard Alumni for a Living Wage, noted that eight of the 19 committee members wrote separate opinions advocating a wage floor, a cost-of-living adjustment and stronger measures for enforcement. The Harvard Crimson reported that a letter to Summers signed by 12 senior faculty members expressed concern that failure to implement a living wage could lead to a protest like the one in April in which dozens of students occupied Massachusetts Hall for three weeks.

"This report doesn't recommend a living wage, and that is what we seek," said Benjamin McKean, a senior and committee member who participated in the sit-in.

Hanging in the balance, meanwhile, are the wages of workers such as Daniel Mejia, a 52-year-old janitor who juggles two jobs to support his wife and three children. A native of El Salvador, Mejia, speaking in Spanish, said that he earns $ 9.65 an hour at Harvard and cannot afford to buy his health insurance through the university.

"Harvard is a multibillion-dollar institution, which still doesn't pay workers well," he said.