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Campus workers enter wage discussion

Karen Langley | Thursday, April 27, 2006

Responding to the Campus Labor Action Project’s escalating efforts to advocate for a $12.10 hourly wage for campus employees, Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves issued a statement last week firmly defending the University’s policies.

But his argument failed to satisfy many members of the group most concerned with the issue – the workers.

With the exception of workers who do not depend on their salary for financial stability, University employees interviewed Monday through Wednesday expressed dissatisfaction with their salaries and departmental treatment along with doubt that anything was about to change.

“We believe that Notre Dame already provides a fair and just wage for employees,” Affleck-Graves said in the statement. “We believe that, on close inspection, both Notre Dame’s wages and its compensation package meet not only the test of our marketplace, but also of our special obligations as a Catholic university.”

But Janice Owens, a supervisor at North Dining Hall who has been involved in worker’s rights issues on a national level, said the University administration is not sympathetic to the situation of many of its low-income employees – many of whom, she said, must work two jobs to make ends meet.

“Too many people have to live paycheck-to-paycheck,” she said. “Their children and homes have been neglected. They are not able to have the better things in life.

“As a Catholic institution, they should be thinking of the people.”

She contested Affleck-Graves’ assertion that University employee benefits make up the difference between employee wages and the calculable living wage.

While some employees may enjoy access to fitness facilities and price reductions on football tickets, “there’s nothing better than cash in hand to take care of their families,” Owens said.

Mary Beth Sosa, a custodian in Farley Hall, said many employees are unable to take advantage of benefits like child tuition aid and access to Rolfs and the Rockne Memorial. She said the health insurance assistance is important, but that the cost “increases more than wages do.”

“I grew up Catholic, but when I came here, I started questioning,” Sosa said. “Everything is about money.

“This place is a corporation. There’s nothing family about it.”

And even the health insurance assistance is inadequate, Owens said, explaining the remaining cost of the insurance is almost inaccessibly high for many part time employees.

“They’re spouting that they give part time insurance,” Owens said. “That’s a joke.”

The least costly of three available insurance policies costs part time employees $830 per month for family coverage, according to the Office of Human Resources Web site.

The least expensive health insurance option for full time University employees requires them to pay $117 per month.

Owens’ familiarity with employee issues stems not only from her own job but also from approximately five months of service last year on the Staff Advisory Council – the group Affleck-Graves described in his statement as the University-sanctioned avenue for employees to express any concerns they might have about their jobs.

She did not find it effective.

“I saw they brought in speakers to tell us what they wanted,” she said, “but they didn’t want to hear what we had to say.”

Sosa also expressed little faith in the Staff Advisory Council, the group Owens resigned from.

“The Staff Advisory Council is there to appease us,” Sosa said. “We really don’t have a voice.”

Even Affleck-Graves’ assertion that Notre Dame is the “employer of choice” for local workers may be misleading, Owens said.

“It’s not like there are a lot of employers in the area,” she said.

Owens also contested Affleck-Graves’ statement that dialogue about employee wages should take place between University officials and employees rather than students. She praised CLAP’s attempts to draw attention to campus labor issues.

“Students should recognize the voice they have,” she said. “When an employee speaks out, they risk their job. But when students speak out, they are not risking anything.

“My concern is the students are passing through Notre Dame, and we are not. Maybe that’s what the administration is thinking – if they wait this out, it will go away. But it won’t.”

North Dining Hall cashier and monitor Sharon Berglund used to be one of the workers who needed to work multiple jobs to get by. Though her financial situation has since changed, Berglund said employees are desperately underpaid.

“I used to have to work 60 hours a week to make ends meet,” Berglund said.

Though she wishes the department and University would be more “understanding of the little guy,” Berglund said she does not feel she has an avenue to voice her concerns.

“If I don’t like it, they’ll tell me to find another job,” she said. “And at my age, who’s going to hire me?”

Disillusionment isn’t the only reason workers are reluctant to speak. Sosa said many employees are afraid they will lose their jobs if they complain about the Building Services department or the University – a fear that Affleck-Graves described as “deeply disturbing” in his statement.

Building Services Department director Alan Bigger said Wednesday employees cannot be fired on the basis of asserting any concerns.

“There is no person I know of who has spoken out and who has been terminated for speaking out or expressing their opinions,” he said.

Bigger said he encourages employees to share their concerns.

“My door is always open,” he said.

Sosa, who worked two jobs until it became too tiring, also said employees have “felt intimidated” from attending CLAP meetings where departmental management have stood outside to greet employees entering.

Bigger said he knows of no administrators who have attended CLAP meetings, though he noted a meeting held in LaFortune was advertised as “open to the public.”

“We don’t interfere with the process of meetings at all,” he said.

Bigger said he has spoken with CLAP organizer Joe Murphy and thanked Murphy for the CLAP-organized employee doughnut receptions.

“We have a civil working relationship,” Bigger said.

Despite her unhappiness with wages and management, Sosa said she is happy to have a job.

“I do like my job,” she said. “I love being in [Farley]. I love the girls.”

Badin custodian Paula Benninghoff agreed that contact with the students brings some benefit to her job, though she said living on custodian wages is “rough paycheck-to-paycheck.”

A single mother, Benninghoff said she often goes without staples like medicine for herself so she can provide for her two children.

“Jobs are hard to find,” she said. “I can’t lose my pay because I have to support my kids.”

She said many University employees are unable to make enough money to afford retirement. She does not expect to retire.

Like Sosa, Benninghoff said employees frequently avoid labor organizations out of fear of employer reprisal.

“We don’t come to meetings because we’re afraid we’re going to lose our jobs,” she said. “That’s why they don’t speak.”

Two workers who do not depend on their income for financial stability expressed satisfaction with the environment of their jobs.

After 13 years as a custodian in Zahm Hall, Margery Payne said she is pleased with the job, which she said allows her to stay active and healthy.

“The boys have always treated me with the utmost respect,” she said. “I love them dearly.”

While she considers her wage to be fair, Payne said she thinks “it’s great that somebody is interested in what we do.”

Rae G. Smith, a monitor at Notre Dining Hall, agreed with Payne.

Smith does not depend on her job for income, seeing her employment rather as a way to remain active.

“I would be shocked if it goes through,” she said. “I’m not against the pay increase, but we have three strikes against us because of the benefits.”

While Sosa does not think CLAP’s actions have had any immediate effect, she expressed hope for the changes she would like to see in the future.

“I think there’s potential for change,” she said. “Maybe not in the near future, but further down the line.”