Dialogue to Create a Living Wage for All College Staff Begins

By Annie Grayer

In their annual announcement of objectives for the year, the Community Council identified “installing a living wage for all workers campus-wide” as of primary importance for their faculty and staff goals.

A living wage, according to the Harvard Living Wage Fact Sheet, is a wage that “takes into account the area-specific cost of living” so that people working in a given community can afford to live there comfortably.

Community Council member Dan Adamek ’18, who first raised the issue, cited the College’s pay scale as evidence that it was failing to pay its employees the wages required to live comfortably in Addison County.

“Somebody in Addison County can’t have all of their basic needs fulfilled if they’re making $10 an hour working at the College,” he said. “It’s impossible.”

Adamek made an astute observation on the disparity that exists between the cost of living estimated by he National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) and the College’s pay scale.

According to a study conducted by the NLIHC, in Vermont, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,007. That means that in order to afford rent and utilities, “a household must earn $3,356 monthly or $40,272 annually.”

Conceptualizing this number in terms of a 40-hour workweek, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into an hourly wage of $19.36.
According to Patrick Norton, the Vice President for Finance and Treasurer, the College uses the MIT living wage calculator to determine that the livable wage for a single adult living in Addison County is $10.86 per hour.

This data assumes that people are working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year.

By further examining the Middlebury College Staff Pay Ranges report published by the College’s office of Human Resources on July 1, 2015, the truth behind staffers wages at the College can be brought to light.

The report is separated into hourly and annual salaries. Then, it is broken down into two separate pay ranges. Within each pay range, there are four band/levels: specialist, management, operations and administrator. Each band/level is then further separated into the lower third, middle third, and upper third of possible pay scales. Each third is then further broken down into the ranges of minimum and maximum wages of that third.

In the lower third of the operations band/level, the lowest possible wages range from $9.74 per hour to $11.68 per hour.
According to Patrick Norton, Vice President for Finance and Treasurer, 26 full-time employees working in operations are making $9.74 an hour. This means that currently, 26 employees fall short of the livable wage benchmark as stated by the MIT living wage calculator.

Although the wage of $9.74 an hour is above the state’s legal minimum wage of $9.15 an hour, it clearly does not meet livable wage standards.

In response to the pay ranges report, Patrick Norton stated, “While our lowest pay range OP1 has a starting salary of $9.74 … the average rate for that subset of workers is $13.15 per hour, well above the starting salary amount and the relevant livable wage benchmark.”

Although only 26 full-time employees fall below the living wage standards according to the MIT living wage calculator, many more would fall below the living wage standards when using the NLIHC study.

According to the NLIHC study, the average wage for a renter in Addison County is $11.83 per hour. Based on the College’s pay ranges, staff workers working in operations who make $9.74 an hour and $11.68 an hour would fall below the average wage that a renter in Addison County makes.

The inconsistency that exists between the living wage data that the College and the Community Council provide suggests that the community needs to use comparable data moving forward, and needs to develop an agreeable definition of what a living wage in Addison County means.
Even though the College has met all of its legal requirements, many staff members have indicated that the salaries that they receive are not enough to comply with a living wage in Middlebury.

When asked about whether or not he thought he was paid enough, another anonymous member of the dining hall staff retorted, “No, absolutely not.” An anonymous member of the dining hall staff commented, “I actually bought a house in Brandon because I couldn’t afford living in Middlebury.” “I had to get a second job to be able to live here,” commented another anonymous dining hall staff member. Before simply pointing fingers, it is important to acknowledge that some of the imbalance that exists between pay scales and cost of living is outside of the College’s control.

For example, the Institute for Energy Research released data in 2010 that showed Vermont’s electricity prices as 29 percent higher than the national average.

In addition, Sperling’s Best Places, a website that ranks cost of living indices, states that cost of living in Middlebury is 19.60 percent higher than the U.S. average. This statistic takes into account grocery, health, housing, utilities and transportation costs for the town.

In light of the high cost of living in Vermont, USA Today ranked Vermont the fifth worst state to make a living.
Heather Pipino, the Development Coordinator for the Vermont Workers Center, which fights for the workers’ rights in Vermont, high-
lights her frustrations over the current circumstances.

“It’s been an untenable situation with people not being able to afford the high cost of living here in Vermont,” she explained.
Although there are certain constraints that make creating a living wage difficult to achieve, the College is situated in a unique position to make positive change.

Through the study “the Economic Impact of Middlebury College” conducted by Northern Economic Consulting Inc. in November 2014, the central role that the College plays in the town of Middlebury and in Addison County is evident.

Middlebury College is the eight largest employer in Vermont and provides one out of every ten jobs in Middlebury. In 2011, the College was responsible for creating 437 jobs in Vermont above the 1,983 jobs it created in Addison County.

In addition, about 45 percent of the College’s payroll goes to town residents. Explained another way, in 2011, wages paid by the College accounted for at least 17 percent of the income of Middlebury residents.

Given its status as a huge economic force, many believe that the College has an obligation to support the local area.

“It is illogical,” Adamek said, “for a college with institutional goals of positive global engagement to pay its workers less than a living wage.” “I saw a wonderful op-ed that Laurie Patton wrote in the Addison County Independent about positive community engagement,” Adamek continued, “and I don’t think there’s anything that’s more positive community engagement than paying those who work for your institution a living wage.”

Tiff Chang ’17.5, the Council’s student co-chair, agreed.  “It’s one of the most basic things we can do at the College to affect change,” she said, “and it’s just so simple compared to anything else we could address.”

Chang, who thinks about Community Council through the lens of inclusivity, also added, “based on the current system, we have failed to be inclusive of the entire College community.”

Further, Heather Pipino commented, “I think the Middlebury community should hold the College to a higher standard and make sure that the people that working there are able to afford to live in Middlebury and contribute to the community.”

Comparing the concerns from workers themselves with the College’s recent efforts to address these concerns, it seems that there is still a lot of work to be done. There still remains confusion and frustration over how raises are distributed.

According to one anonymous dining hall staff member, raises range from 2.5- 2.75 percent of their annual salary. In response, another anonymous dining hall staff worker added, “I think most of us think we should get a higher raise here. I mean come on, wouldn’t you think it would be higher?”

A third anonymous dining hall staff worker continued by saying, “They tell us every year how well we are doing and how we are under budget and saving money, but our raises won’t ever go up.”

“They tell us great job, but here, have this little bit,” he added.
From the College’s perspective, raising wages is something taken very seriously.

Tim Spears, Vice President for Administration and Professor of American Studies, created a blog titled “Across Campus,” which is meant to update the College community on administrative projects. On February 4, 2011, Spears published a three-part post that detailed the efforts be- hind the Revising the Staff Salary Increase Program.

For starters, Spears wrote that the College has a stated goal of “paying staff in the top 20 percent of the market for their jobs.”
Spears then explained how the College reorganized its compensation structure in 2006. First, Human Resources arranged similar positions into their own band and level, and calculated the minimum, mid- point and maximum of each grouping’s salary.

Spears wrote, “when the SRC (Staffing Wages Committee) and Wage and Salary Committee reviewed the spectrum of staff salaries [in 2011] it discovered that 808 employees were at or below the midpoint of their salary ranges; 366 were between the midpoint and the maximum; and 118 were at the maximum. (Note that these 1292 employees also include part-time workers).”

“In order to move more employees in the lower half of the salary range toward the midpoint,” Spears wrote, “the committee realized that it would need to find a way of redistributing the funds going to the top of range.”

Patrick Norton reiterated the validity of the Revising the Staff Salary Increase Program by clarifying that the program’s key principles are, “(1) recognizing individual performance, as determined through an annual performance summary (APS) process and (2) providing greater opportunity for individuals to move up within the salary range for their position.”

Staff workers who commented for this article found the redistribution of funds unfair. One anonymous dining hall staff worker commented, “The hiring wage goes up about what the raise is and so if someone has been here ten years, and then some new person gets hired and they’re making only 10 cents less than you, it’s very frustrating.”

Another anonymous dining hall staff worker echoed his co-workers’ sentiments.

“Some of us, you know, may have 15- 20 years of experience, if not more,” he said. “That guy coming off the street, that has maybe two years of experience, is making pretty much exactly what I’m making.” In addition, staff workers felt that raises based on performance were nonexistent. “I also feel,” one dining hall staff worker lamented, “that there should be some sort of discussion about perhaps merit wages where I work better than the next guy, why should that guy that doesn’t work as hard as I do get the same raise that I’m getting, or a bigger one because he’s making less? That’s a little frustrating.”

What workers are responding to might simply be the College’s effort to rectify the imbalance that may exist within a certain pay scale. Although the College’s initiative to create equality within a certain band is important, it clearly has the potential to marginalize the efforts of a hardworking, dedicated individual.

Despite the overarching complaints about not receiving a living wage, staff members were sure to commend the College’s generous benefits package.

“I can’t complain about the benefits,” one anonymous staff member said. “I’m 45, and they are contributing 15% [towards my retirement]. I mean that’s huge.”

Overall, Chang said that she believed the implementation of a living wage would be generally uncontroversial, explaining, “everyone I’ve mentioned it to gets behind it very quickly.”

Adamek echoed her sentiments. “I’ve never heard a single person not say, ‘Yeah, we’re a wealthy institution and people should be able to live on the wages that we pay them. That makes sense, it’s normal. Wait, we don’t do that?’”

Most importantly, both Chang and Adamek stressed their hope that any recommendation the Council may make going forward would be paired with constant dialogue and collaboration with the administration.

Heather Pipino agrees that the answer must be community based.

“It’s good to have faculty, students and staff all standing together,” Pipino said, “I mean that’s the way we win things, is when people stand with each other.”

Ms. Pipino was also quick to add, “We [the Vermont Workers Center] would love to find out how to be more involved, how to be more supportive.”

“The conditions are not easy,” Pipino said. “But it’s when we stand together, and when communities stand to support workers living right in their town that we have our strength and when we can push back against this race to the bottom.”

This report includes anonymous interviews with three dining hall staff members. It does not reflect the official position of Middlebury College staff. They were granted anonymity so they could speak candidly about their experiences.

Additional reporting by Nick Garber.