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The Harvard Living Wage Campaign
For more thorough discussions of these and other issues, please see the more comprehensiveinformation supplement.
• WHAT IS A LIVING WAGE?
The idea behind a living wage is that people who work in our community should be able to live decently and raise their families here. This requires a wage and benefits package that takes into account the area-specific cost of living, as well as the basic expenses involved in supporting a family.
Although living wage standards do, by definition, vary by region, they are all considerably higher than the federal minimum wage. This is because the minimum wage does not begin to meet the needs of working people or families anywhere in the country: in fact, it puts a parent with one child below the federal poverty line. A living wage aims to correct this by establishing, at a local level, a more reasonable minimum wage. Like many municipal standards in place around the country, our living wage standard also combines this wage standard with benefits.
• WHAT DOES HARVARD PAY NOW?
In the absence of a living wage policy, Harvard’s wages vary tremendously. While Harvard’s fund managers are paid as much as $10 million per year, an increasing number of campus workers are paid wages that are grossly inadequate. For instance, directly-hired janitors are paid as little as $7.50 per hour, and some subcontracted dining hall workers earn only $6.50 per hour. For a full-time worker taking no vacations, these wages yield yearly incomes of just $15,600 and $13,520, respectively. Because Harvard pays so little, hundreds of employees are forced to work two and even three jobs—as many as 80 hours per week—and still struggle to support their families.
• WHY $10.25 PER HOUR, PLUS BENEFITS?
We have taken our figure of $10.25 per hour directly from the Cambridge living wage ordinance, passed in 1999. This ordinance established a living wage standard for all city employees, as well as for workers employed by firms with major city contracts.
The city’s wage standard was chosen in part because it was the lowest wage paid any unionized city employee. As such, it was seen as a minimal standard for a living wage. In fact, every study we have seen on the local cost of living shows how minimal it is. The National Low-Income Housing Commission estimates that a wage of over $15 per hour is needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Boston area. Depending on family composition, Wider Opportunities for Women has found that living wage standards can run over $20 per hour, and that most families will need at least $11 to $18 per hour. To our knowledge, there is no study of the local cost of living which supports any wage less than $10.25 per hour.
We combine this wage standard with a demand for benefits for two reasons. First, the origins of the $10.25 wage standard in the Cambridge living wage ordinance suggest that the wage is designed to be accompanied by benefits. Second, studies of the local cost of living indicate that needs such as medical care can not be met by the $10.25 wage standard, nor by a combination of wages and benefits that total to $10.25 per hour. Benefits are a necessary addition to, and not a substitution for any part of, the $10.25 wage standard.
• HOW WIDESPREAD IS LOW-WAGE LABOR ON CAMPUS?
Based on information gathered from the administration, campus unions, and individual workers, we estimate that there are currently 1000 to 2000 people working on this campus who are paid less than $10.25 per hour plus benefits. These workers fall into three categories:
• CAN HARVARD AFFORD TO PAY A LIVING WAGE?
Yes. By very liberal estimates, it would cost Harvard $10 million per year to implement a living wage policy. Although significant in absolute terms, this sum amounts to just three-fifths of one percent of the university’s annual budget. Looked at another way, it is less than one-half of one percent of the annual interest on Harvard’s endowment. Looked at still another way, it exactly equals the compensation Harvard paid a single fund manager in 1998.
• IF HARVARD IMPLEMENTS A LIVING WAGE, WILL WORKERS BE FIRED?
There is no reason to think so. The jobs that underpaid workers perform on this campus are ones that need to be done: delivering mail, cooking, working in libraries, building, cleaning, and so on. Harvard can not fire these workers without seriously impairing its own ability to function. Unlike a fast food chain, which has substantial freedom to downsize and close individual branches, Harvard can not simply eliminate the Biology department, close down Adams house, or cut off the meal plan.
Rather than threaten jobs, a living wage would actually increase job security at Harvard. Currently, the university routinely threatens to fire decently-paid workers and replace them with outsourced workers whom it can pay less. Because a living wage policy establishes the same wage floor for outsourced and directly-hired workers, it would undercut this threat, thereby defending the jobs of thousands of workers.
Finally, it should be noted that Harvard has in the past proven that it can dramatically increase wages without laying people off. Since its establishment in 1988, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers has won a 77% increase in its members’ wages. No one has been fired.
Common Objections of Harvard Administrators
(And Some Responses)
Harvard administrators have tried to argue this point by citing the claim of the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment policies that, as of May, 2000, only 372 Harvard employees, or 2.9% of Harvard’s workforce, were paid less than a living wage. However, these numbers are based on a purposely misleading definition of "Harvard worker," which includes only directly-hired, unionized, "regular" employees. The definition excludes all casual and subcontracted workers, who comprise the vast majority of underpaid workers at Harvard. When all workers—"regulars," casuals, and subcontracted employees—are considered, there are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 workers at Harvard who are paid less than $10.25 per hour plus benefits.
Administrators go on to argue that when "total compensation" is considered—wages plus benefits—only 194 of the above 372 workers receive less than $10.25 per hour in compensation. There are two problems with this claim:
First, the figure of 194 is as inaccurate as the first figure of 372: it is based on a definition of "Harvard worker" which excludes most of the workers who are underpaid and denied benefits. Hundreds of casual workers are paid less than $10.25 per hour, and receive no benefits whatsoever: their poverty-level wage is their "total compensation." Many subcontracted workers find themselves in the same position. Some subcontracted workers do receive certain benefits, but even those who are eligible have told members of the Living Wage Campaign that they fear taking advantage of benefits for fear of losing their jobs. Indeed, we know a janitor whom a subcontracting company tried to fire for having taken vacation time guaranteed in his contract. Today, he has his job only because a professor at Harvard Law School interceded on his behalf. None of these workers is included in the figures Harvard administrators present.
Second, even if all workers received $10.25 per hour in "total compensation," that would not be enough; benefits must be a supplement to the $10.25 wage standard, and not a subsitute for any part of the wage. This fact is explained in the accompanying packet of supporting information. Briefly, however, it is seen in the findings of Wider Opportunities For Women, which defined living wage standards in different regions of Massachusetts in 1997. The organization noted that its standards for families in Cambridge—all higher than the standard adopted in the Cambridge living wage ordinance—covered only daily needs, not long-term expenses, large purchases, or emergencies. Thus, Cambridge’s living wage standard of $10.25 per hour can not be expected to pay for costly health needs, retirement expenses, or other expenses which are standardly covered by benefits. Families can not pay rent in Cambridge on $8 per hour, regardless of the number of dental appointments Harvard allows them; and those making $10.25 per hour cannot afford fillings without dental insurance. Harvard’s "total compensation" argument fails to recognize these basic facts.
In fact, all casual workers and many subcontracted workers lack union representation. Thus, hundreds of Harvard’s lowest-paid workers have no voice in workplace decisions that profoundly affect their lives, including decisions that determine their wages and benefits. Harvard simply pays these workers as little as it likes—typically $6.50 to $9 per hour, with few, if any, benefits.
In fact, campus unions are demanding a living wage, and have been doing so for over two years as a part of the coalition that makes up the Living Wage Campaign. The Coalition of Harvard Unions has sent a letter to the Harvard administration demanding the implementation of a living wage policy. Union representatives have consistently spoken in support of a living wage at public events, and have helped turn out rank-and-file members to demonstrations. Most importantly, unions have begun demanding a living wage in contract negotiations: some have already done so, and in a recent meeting of representatives from nine of the eleven unions that represent Harvard workers, plans were made for every union to demand a living wage in its next round of negotiations.
The reason that some unionized workers still do not receive a living wage is not that they and their unions have not demanded it, but because Harvard has rejected their demands. Just last year, Harvard’s directly-hired janitors renegotiated their contract, and demanded a living wage in negotiations. Harvard’s negotiators, however, opposed the demand, and because of their relative power in negotiations, were able to keep down wages and benefits. As a result, hundreds of directly-hired, unionized janitors are still paid less than a living wage, and no part-time janitors receive benefits. Harvard administrators never mention these negotiations when they argue that unions have not spoken up for a living wage.
A living wage and benefit standard addresses the problem of extreme poverty on campus directly and affordably. By contrast, Harvard adopted a set of alternative measures in May, 2000, which are inadequate to address this problem; many would make appropriate complements to a living wage policy, but none substitue for it. Harvard’s alternatives and their limitations are discussed at length in the accompanying packet of supporting information; briefly, however, they include the following major features and problems:
A. Increased access to health benefits. This is in fact part of the living wage demand. However, Harvard’s method of expanding access to benefits actually threatens to hurt the workers supposedly being helped. Harvard requires that employees work at least 16 hours per week to receive benefits: this provides a powerful incentive for the university to cut workers’ hours in order to deny them benefits and save money. This maneuver has often been used at Harvard: for instance, before this proposal was adopted, every janitor at the Divinity School worked fewer than 20 hours per week precisely because the university would have to provide benefits and higher wages to any janitor who worked more than 20 hours per week.
B. Increased access to perquisites for part-time regulars and long-term casuals. These perquisites range from ID cards, to access to museums, to eligibility for Harvard’s Tuition Assistance Program. Certainly, Harvard workers deserve all of these things. Yet none of these perquisites can substitute for a living wage and benefits; none of them alleviates extreme poverty.
C. Expansion of the Bridge Program. The Bridge Program is a literacy education program which was opened to all entry-level service employees. This, too, is a valuable program, but no substitute for a living wage policy. No amount of education will eliminate the posts of janitor, cook, or security guard at Harvard; and so long as the university continues to deny these workers a living wage with benefits, it will continue to create poverty.
Possibly worse than the limitations of Harvard’s adopted alternatives has been the university’s failure to implement them. Due to a crippling lack of interest among administrators, very few workers have even heard of these adopted reforms, let alone benefitted from them. Harvard did not even notify campus unions of these reforms until roughly six months after their adoption.