The Living Wage Campaign Responds to President Sullivan’s Email to the University Community
The Living Wage Campaign commends President Sullivan for her focus on the wages of our lowest-paid employees. We appreciate her leadership on this important issue, but we cannot agree with her characterization of the progress U.Va. has made. In fact, her email to the University today contains information which we deem intentionally misleading. Below, we respond to President Sullivan’s claims directly.
–Wages: President Sullivan suggests that the University effectively pays a wage in excess of what the Living Wage Campaign demands. This is patently false, and is based on a disingenuous reading of what counts as ‘pay.’ The Living Wage Campaign demands a base wage of $13.00/hr before benefits, and we use a generous estimate of the University’s benefits package to arrive at that number*. Many of the benefits that President Sullivan includes in the actual wage figure—such as the $2,000 dollar education credit—are particularly useless for the employees at the bottom of the pay scale, who often have to work second and third jobs simply to make ends meet. Employees can’t eat a UVA class per semester, and they can’t pay for housing with a university parking benefit. Employees need the basic wage number we demand as a monetary figure in order to live with human dignity in the Charlottesville area, which is nearly 10% more expensive than the national average—in large part because of the presence of the University. President Sullivan’s email suggests that UVA employees can live on a low base wage supplemented by what are in effect coupons only redeemable at the company store for certain items. In addition, numbers like the $2,000 education credit falsely inflate the actual monetary value of what the university offers employees: while it might cost that much for a member of the general public to take two courses, the marginal cost for UVA to offer this benefit is negligible. This response on the part of the administration only underlines the fact that they refuse to treat this issue with the level of attention and gravity it deserves. (* see footnote for further information on the wage numbers)
–Contract Employees: President Sullivan asserts that the number of University employees at the minimum pay rate has fallen dramatically. This statement is blatantly misleading because it completely ignores a significant portion of the University’s workforce: contract employees. To fulfill its core functions, the University relies on both direct employees—who the numbers above apply to—as well as ‘contract’ employees: those hired through an outside company. These two categories of employees often do the same exact work—food preparation, cleaning, construction, and groundskeeping—but receive very unequal pay and benefits. Contract employees can be paid as little as the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour with no benefits or job security. Despite repeated calls and Freedom of Information Act requests from the Living Wage Campaign, the University continues to stonewall requests for contract transparency. In fact, the University has no figure on even the number of contract employees it has, so thoroughly does it disregard them. Auditing contractors is a right the University reserves explicitly in a number of contracts, but inexplicably chooses not to exercise. We hold that outsourcing core functions does not in any way relieve the University of its responsibility to ensure that all employees doing the work that makes U.Va. run are treated fairly. President Sullivan unfortunately ignores the fact that there is a blatant policy of ‘separate and unequal’ written implicitly into the University’s hiring practices.
–Legal Issues: As to the issue of the Attorney General’s opinion, our legal team assures us of two things based on extensive research: first, the opinion of the Attorney General is in no way legally binding on the University. For evidence that the University is able to go against the opinion of the Attorney General when it feels compelled to, look no further than the ongoing issue of Attorney General Cuccinelli’s access to faculty emails related to climate-change science. Second, the opinion (solicited from then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell in 2006 by then-president Casteen specifically as a response to the Living Wage Campaign) relies on a narrow interpretation of a portion of the Virginia Public Procurement Act that is actually quite ambiguous. A number of other Virginia municipalities, including Charlottesville, have already instituted living wage policies, and the University as a public body has the same ability. The Attorney General has pointed to no legal restriction that operates on a public university and not on municipalities. This issue is a convenient legal fiction that the Administration has used for years to justify its inaction in the face of unjust wages.
As evidenced by President Sullivan’s email, the University continues to ignore or distort the years of research, scholarship, and activism from the Living Wage Campaign. We invite you to learn more about our actual demands via our extensive economic, legal, and policy research available on our website at LivingWageAtUVA.org. We furthermore call on President Sullivan to engage in good faith with the demands of the campaign–demands that the university should be ashamed to ignore and that her own scholarship as a labor sociologist supports.
* President Sullivan provides a figure that averages out the university’s contribution to employee health plans (about $3.90), adding that to the existing base wage ($10.65), to suggest that University wages already exceed a Living Wage. However, we take health insurance contributions into account when calculating our base wage demand of $13.00. In fact, pre-release figures given to the Campaign for planning purposes show a bare-minimum living wage for Charlottesville to be nearly $18.00/hour (The Economic Policy Institute will be publishing official revised 2011 figures soon). To get to the number we demand, we subtract the maximum (rather than average) amount-per-hour the university contributes to health care, which is in the area of $5/hr, from $18.00. However, President Sullivan goes on to note a figure of between $17.00 and $20.00 per hour as a total wage for UVA employees, which she arrives at by including the presumed value of other benefits per hour in the total. This is misleading and contrary to our explicit demands as well as to the spirit of a Living Wage.