The Harvard dining hall worker strike is over. About time! In honor of this historic confluence of gilded academia and low-wage workers, let’s hear some true stories of what it’s like working a normal job at a nice college.
No large institution can run without people cleaning, repairing, serving food, being security guards, filing things, and generally doing all of the tasks that society both needs in order to function and does not pay well for. These sorts of jobs are everywhere. What makes them especially fascinating in a university setting, though, is the fact that universities love nothing more than espousing values. The treatment of workers is a handy way to examine how much those values are bullshit.
This is a sampling of emails we received when we requested stories from non-academic college workers last week.
From a janitor at Cornell:
I have my BBA from [university]. Finished half the credits for my masters when my world fell apart. Engagement ended, hated my job, and I just needed a new start. Decided I needed a change so I moved half way across NY state and landed in Ithaca. Needed a short term job so went to a temp agency and was offered a job at Cornell as a “support services member”(janitor) for 10 bucks an hour.
Now where to begin. Let’s start with the tickets. Now, I was living in my car when I first started this job. I was told the initial interview would last a half hour. Parked my car and put 45 minutes worth of change in the machine and went in for my interview. 2 hours later I come out to a ticket. Only 35 bucks. Not a fortune, but to a homeless guy living in his car eating raw Ramen noodles.....it was far more than I could afford. The real problem is that they refuse to issue you a parking pass if you have a ticket, even if you work there, with an outstanding ticket. So I continued to collect tickets. No matter how many times I explained I was homeless and needed a parking pass they wouldn’t issue me one. I got booted and had to spend my food money for the next 6 days to get it off and had to walk 2 hours to and from work for the remainder of my time there to avoid my car getting towed. Very liberal right? ...
Honestly, I’ve never seen a work environment like that at Cornell. The situation there is unlike anything i could have imagined. They tell me how happy I should be to be making above minimum wage, and yet the college being there drives rent to unreasonable rates(( pay 650 for basically a closet that my queen bed barely fits in). The entitlement and fake liberalness that comes out of these places is amazing. I’m sure if you asked any official from the school if they support a living wage, they’d say yes. So why are they paying me 10 dollars an hour in a city they’ve driven prices up to the point where I had to live in my car?
From a grad student worker:
I’ve worked in higher education for damn near a decade. I started my career in a grad assistantship at a major public university that was listed at 20 hours per week but required closer to 40, and paid a whopping $950 a month. I paid for groceries in pennies at a self checkout in the neighborhood Kroger more than once because my credit cards were maxed out and I was broke as hell.
My first full-time job at a student union paid $35,000 annually for a masters required position - about the industry average. I worked between 50 and 80 hours a week depending on usual workload and mandatory after hours events needing staffing. People who worked 8:30a-5:00p - people who, god forbid, had families - were frequently ridiculed by management for ‘not being team players’ or ‘not caring enough.’
Maybe the worst part of it, then, is the guilt trip they lay on us. As the logic goes, paying us an extra three or four grand a year would make education fundamentally unaffordable to the average student.
From a clerical worker at the University of Missouri:
I can’t say that I’m not treated well, but I don’t feel very respected, either. Millions of dollars are going towards new construction on campus (chiefly the $25 million softball stadium), and prices are being raised on staff parking and insurance. This is despite Mizzou having a record year in fundraising.
The students are hit and miss in respect for our job, which is frustrating, considering 88% of the student population relies on us to stay in school year to year. I would like to see university money go towards better wages for us cogs that keep the whole wheel turning.
From a university admin worker:
I work at a Midwest University as an Administrative Assistant II (newly given job title). My current salary amounts to approximately $35,000/year. It is the same amount I made when I started working at this university 8 years ago. While my pay rate has changed, so has the amount I am charged for benefits, at time causing a decrease in take-home pay. Currently I am up about $100/month. (We get the same insurance that the faculty gets, so when their union agrees to a bump in fees or cut in services, we get the same bump/cut. The most shocking part of this is the fact that the person under me (Administrative Assistant I) has been at the university for 35 years, and has only recently broken the $15/hr mark. This at a Univeristy whose develpment office was able to get outside funding to pay for the football coaches raise, (his guaranteed salary is $800,000, that doesn’t take into account bonuses, etc.).
The people at my University in my position and lower are not unionized. We have attempted several times to do so, but the masses have been scarred off by the administration and by false information given by those who work with the administration (1 step above me is unionized). The University does a great job of placating many in my position, we are invited to planning meetings, we sit in committees, and are made to think our opinion matters. However that is never the case. Many would tell you that these meetings hold the same format, 1) Describe the problem; 2) give three solutions to the problem; 3) Explain why solutions 1&2 won’t work; 4)Ask for feedback, but implement solution #3 while waiting for feedback. They are also very political (Trumpian) when it comes to answering question, restating the question in a way that they are able to give the answer they want, normally to a question that wasn’t even asked.
From this information I am sure you can tell that we aren’t treated like the highest class citizens around campus. Our President boasts a “heads-up” campus, where we are supposed to look up and talk to people, but we are often ignored at meetings and when walking throughout the campus. The Dean of the college I work for hasn’t said “hi” to me in the 3 years he’s has been there (unless of course others are present, even then he still limits himself). Needless to say, many of us don’t feel welcome or respected as we work here. One of the only reasons I am still here is due to the health benefits, which come in very hand for a person with a spouse and 3 kids.
From a worker in the athletic department at another college:
I am a 10-month employee that works full-time hours for 10 months and most weeks I am putting in overtime from the beginning of September through the first week or two of May. But I am considered part time because I am only a 10-month employee...
I lack paid vacation days. I lack paid personal days. I lack paid sick days. The school offers me health insurance, but it wasn’t offered until Obamacare forced the school to offer it. For the two months I am not employed, I would have to pay over $1,000 a month to keep my insurance active. So that’s obviously nowhere within the realm of being affordable. But I do have a retirement account, but alas it was also only offered to me because of some law that required it since I averaged a certain number of hours per week... I don’t have a whole lot of interaction with students, but they treat me pretty well.
Unions don’t exist in college athletics as far as I’m aware, at least not for sports information directors. We do have a national organization, the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA), but it is not a union...
The school’s obsession with football is absolutely disgusting, and basketball to a lesser extent. The football program practically walks on water here. They can do no wrong.
From someone who worked as a psychological counselor at a state university in the South:
It got to a point where I felt that the annual tuition hikes and the constant monetization of every aspect of the university experience was getting ridiculous. Students are accruing debt, but we continually charge them for every little thing, tuition, room, board, parking, meal plans - if there is some way to monetize the student experience, higher ed has found it. It isn’t about the students anymore, that’s for sure. Being a young person today is horrible, you are robbed blind if you try and educate yourself, but if you don’t you are screwed. The first priority of any university employee is to protect their salary.
I don’t think the current higher ed model is sustainable. I wish we could fund all those departments above, but it is abundantly clear to me those are all cosst passed directly on to the student. If I had an 18 year old kid, I would encourage them to seek specific job training, and only do a 4 year college if they were dead serious (to attain a 4 year degree that translates to employment).And outside of some education, business, and some STEM majors, there is no reason to attend college.
Towards the end, I felt like I was just part of the problems my clients came in the door with.
“Being a young person today is horrible, you are robbed blind if you try and educate yourself, but if you don’t you are screwed.” Great bumper sticker.