Beyond Wages in the Workplace

Paying and training low-wage employees decently

The terms of employment Harvard offers its lowest-paid and part-time workers would change significantly if the recommendations of a faculty and administrative committee are adopted. The recommendations, issued May 4, include educating entry-level workers to enhance their job skills, extending health-insurance benefits and requiring contractors to do the same, establishing guidelines for the outsourcing of service work, and modifying internal University employment policies.

President Neil L. Rudenstine appointed the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies in April 1999 to review the University’s relationship with its “contingent workforce”—those who work on a temporary basis and those who are employees of outside firms to which Harvard services have been contracted.

The committee began work in an environment shaped by two converging concerns about Harvard’s policies and practices. First, negotiations were then under way with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers over the misuse of part-time employees (see “Treating Workers Too Casually,” November-December 1999, page 82). Second, students had been campaigning for higher labor standards for manufacturers of apparel licensed to carry the Harvard name, and for a “living wage” for employees (“Students Pro-test Sweat-shop Labor,” May-June 1999, page 67).

Indeed, in commenting on the committee’s report, Rudenstine thanked “the students, faculty, and others who have focused the attention of the entire University community on important questions of economic justice and on the dignity and well-being of all workers on this campus.” Absent their advocacy, he noted, “[W]e would not have looked so carefully and broadly at these questions, and probably would not have considered such wide-ranging reforms as those proposed by the Committee.”

The committee, chaired by D. Quinn Mills, Weatherhead professor of business administration, in fact extended its mandate and looked beyond the “contingent workforce.” Of 12,722 “regular” Harvard employees, it found, 12,458 work more than half time and receive full University benefits. “Limited regular” staff, numbering 264 unionized employees, work fewer than 20 hours per week and receive Social Security, workers’ compensation, and unemployment compensation, but not other benefits. Just under 3 percent of regular employees—372 of the 12,722 total—were found to earn less than $10 per hour in wages, the initial goal of the Living Wage Campaign; all of these workers are represented by unions. Only 194 employees, all of whom work half time or less, earn total hourly compensation of less than $10 including benefits.

“Casual” employees —temporary workers, who work less than half time or for less than three months—number 1,200 to 1,500 at any given time, and total 9,000 during the course of the year. They too receive only the legally mandated benefits. A committee survey found that three-quarters of the casuals are students, retirees, or people supplementing income from other jobs.

Finally, 2,000 employees of outside contractors work on campus in dining, custodial, security, and other service jobs. The committee found that less than a quarter of these contracted employees, the majority of whom work part time, earn wages of less than $10 per hour. The employees of construction contractors working on capital projects for Harvard are governed by University hiring policies, the committee found; service workers are not.

Having concluded that “the University meets and exceeds its stated goal of providing fair and competitive compensation, and that its fringe benefits and other perquisites are ‘above market,’” the committee focused on opportunities for Harvard to “enhance significantly the circumstances of its entry-level workers.” It did so not by recommending a wage floor, but instead by advocating access to essential skills and benefits.

Foremost, the committee recommended that as an educational institution, Harvard ought to expand the “Bridge to Learning and Literacy” program piloted this year at the Faculty Club. It offers English-language and basic literacy skills, with additional classes in computer training and access to General Education Degree courses. The committee envisions 500 enrollees per year, using paid release time during the workday, with the aim of qualifying the workers for higher-skilled positions at Harvard or elsewhere.

The committee also suggested that service employees who work at least 16 hours per week qualify for University health insurance coverage (the minimum has been 20 hours). More controversially, it recommended that contracts for Harvard’s larger outside service vendors be let only to those firms that meet the same standard of offering subsidized health-insurance coverage to their workers on campus. This suggestion provoked a sharp dissent from committee members Paul F. Levy, executive dean of the Medical School, and Nancy L. Maull, administrative dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. They argued that Harvard had no business imposing such standards, “based on a moral position,” on the marketplace; that the requirement would prove impractical; and that it would drain University resources from their intended use—for example, depriving medical students of financial-aid funds, thus making it less likely that they would pursue careers in research or public-interest medicine.

The committee also urged that guidelines be created to regulate future use of outside service contractors. And it recommended changes in Harvard’s internal fringe-benefit rates to better reflect actual costs, removing possible incentives toward hiring of casual workers to save on total employment costs.

Students and Cambridge government oficials who support the “living wage”—now $10.25 per hour—expressed disappointment with the report, and said they would continue campaigning for adoption of their own program.

Despite the criticisms, the recommendations appear likely to be adopted, at a direct cost of $2 million or more per year, plus higher costs for contracted services. Before the report was issued, Rudenstine had committed only to circulating it widely for comment. Neither he nor anyone else raised a personal perspective the president might have on this issue. In 1991, Rudenstine told this magazine that he remembered growing up with “a sense of living close to the margin economically. Not wondering where the next meal would come from, but for a few years there was no financial flexibility.” He recalled that his father, a federal prison guard, held part-time jobs evenings and weekends.

In any event, upon release of the committee’s report, Rudenstine immediately announced his “strong inclination” that the “expansion of benefits for each category of workers, and the guidelines for contracting with outside companies for services” be implemented. (The report, minus appendices, may be read at www.provost.harvard.edu.)   

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