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Fighting for a Living Wage at William & Mary

March 28, 2011 8:05 pm by: Category: Economic Justice A+ / A-

For the last several years, Virginia Organizing has supported the Living Wage Coaltion of William and Mary in their efforts to ensure that workers at the college are able to earn a living that keeps up with the increasing cost of living and provides them with a reasonable living.

The concept of a living wage emerged from the recognition that the national poverty line, as calculated from a method developed in the 1960s by the US Census Bureau, is no longer a sufficient means to determine the cost of living for families in America.  A living wage is meant to reflect the basic needs of a family and differs depending on a family’s geographical location and number of family members.[3]  The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a non-partisan think-tank based in Washington, DC, provides a living wage calculator based on seven categories of expenses: housing, food, childcare, transportation, health care, other necessities and taxes.  The EPI calculates the cost of living for a family with one parent and one child in the Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Newport News area totals $36,644 ($17.62/hr).  It is important to note that the EPI’s basic family budget is indeed "basic." It comprises only the amount a family needs in order to feed, shelter, and clothe itself, get to work and school, and subsist in 21st century America. Hence, it includes no savings, no restaurant meals, no funds for emergencies—not even renters’ insurance to protect against fire, flood or theft. [4]

There are approximately 360 William and Mary employees earning a salary below $31,200 ($15/hr).  This number does not reflect the number of hourly workers earning less than that amount or workers sub-contracted to companies like Aramark.  Of the 104 housekeepers earning a salary at The College, 75% are making at or under $21,995 ($10.57).[5] This is a significant discrepancy from the $36,644 cost of living calculated by the EPI, and helps explain why many employees of the College have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

To understand the real-life impacts of poverty wages on campus, consider this story from someone whose family has been part of William and Mary and the greater Williamsburg community for over one hundred years.  To respect her wish to remain anonymous, we will call her Anita.  Anita worked at the College for 25 years as a maid, which was what the housekeeping positions were called when she began working, before retiring.  However, because Anita’s retirement pay was so low, she was compelled to return to work. For the next twenty years, Anita worked part-time as a housekeeper for the College, and despite her deteriorating health, was unable to retire because the cost of living far outstripped what she could save as a maid during her first 25 years of employment or earn from retirement. One day during work at the age of 88, Anita was taken to the hospital by ambulance after she fell over while trying to lift multiple garbage bags.  After this incident, Anita was forced to retire, and she still struggles every day to pay her medical bills.  Anita said in an interview with a member of the LWC that despite all of this she still loves the College, and would return to work if she were physically able.

Today, many of William and Mary workers must work two to three jobs to make ends meet and provide for their families.  The following worker testimonies highlight these realities.  Shelly, a W&M Housekeeper states, “I’m paid 800 on the 1st and the 16th, but after tax and everything, that’s 600.  That’s supposed to pay my house payment, water, lights, food… I work three jobs.”  A worker who wishes to remain anonymous explains, “I’m working two jobs.  You have to.  You have to make ends meet.  Everything’s going up but the paycheck; water, rent, everything.” Barbara, another William and Mary Housekeeper also shares, “I’ve been here for 20 years.  I’m 42 years old now… I like the work that I do, but the pay is terrible.  I have two kids.  One is a junior in high school and wants to go to college.  How is that going to happen when my paycheck is $1500 a month?  I’m still living at home with my mom.  I’m not financially able to live on my own.” As these stories illustrate, the hardships of being paid poverty wages are manifold. Workers at William and Mary are unable to provide basic necessities for themselves and their families.

History of a living wage at W&M

It is a common misconception that poverty wages are a new issue at the College.  Ten years ago, workers and students ran a Living Wage Campaign at William and Mary. In March 2001, as a direct result of the campaign, President Sullivan formed the Committee on Employment Opportunity (CEO).  The purpose of this committee was to research working conditions and compensation at the College.  This committee included professors of economics, business and law, administration from the School of Business, members from the Black Faculty and Staff Forum, and Anna Martin, Vice President for Administration.  The report from the committee concluded

Despite this commitment to College employees, the CEO dissolved in less than three years.  Many campus members saw this previous campaign as successful because President Sullivan instituted a 22% increase for the College’s lowest paid workers, bringing every worker up to at least $8.50 as a direct result of student and worker pressure. However, many of the workers who had been at the College for 15-20 years were disappointed because this wage increase did not account for their increased experience, time, and dedication to the College. Many workers who had been here for decades were being paid less than those who were newly hired. Although much research was completed by the CEO and multiple meetings were held between workers and administration members to rectify these problems, the administration has failed to address a majority of the recommendations made by this committee.  The reality remains today that many William and Mary workers, who are responsible for the maintenance and sustenance of the College, do not receive enough money to make ends meet.

Over the past few decades, the call for a living wage has resonated across America, and over 150 cities, counties, and universities nationwide have responded.  Today we call upon the College of William and Mary to follow suit, and to set a precedent for colleges and Universities in Virginia and across the nation.  

Now is the time to rise to the standards of our own rhetoric.  Now it is the time to transform our ideals into reality, to put our education into our action, and to bring into being the kind of College that we can be proud to attend: one that compensates all members of our community fairly and equitably and does not accept conditions of inequality as inevitable costs of our institutional success.  As students and activists, our hands are not tied: the policies and practices of this University are the outcome of explicit decisions made by real people.  And if real people created this problem, real people can fix it.

Fighting for a Living Wage at William & Mary Reviewed by on . For the last several years, Virginia Organizing has supported the Living Wage Coaltion of William and Mary in their efforts to ensure that workers at the colleg For the last several years, Virginia Organizing has supported the Living Wage Coaltion of William and Mary in their efforts to ensure that workers at the colleg Rating:
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