OPINION - Guest writer

MICHAEL PIERCE: A living wage

UA priorities on wrong path

On July 2, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz wrote the officers of the Arkansas Public Employees Union to inform them that it was just too expensive to pay living wages to all of the campus' full-time employees.

He explained, "The current estimated cost to raise the salaries of all 548 incumbent employees to $30,000 is $3.65 million," and the university simply could not afford that. Yet the University just found what the Democrat-Gazette estimated to be $10.1 million to buy out the contract of football coach Chad Morris. If it can find that much money to pay one man not to work, the university should be able to find the money to pay living wages to those 548 clerical, housekeeping, grounds, and physical plant workers.

The 548 full-time employees making less than $30,000 per year ($14.42 per hour) are critical to the daily functioning of the university. They make sure that dormitories and classrooms are clean and sanitary, that faculty can teach and conduct research, that buildings and grounds remain in good repair, and that students graduate in a timely manner. Unlike a football coach, these workers are vital to the mission of the state's flagship university.

Yet too many of these 548 full-time employees live in poverty. For a Washington County family with two adults and two children to live independently (no assistance from relatives or government programs), each adult has to earn $14.21 per hour, according to an MIT study. The union, though, rounds the living wage up to $14.42, an even $30,000 per year, because the university charges its poorly paid employees to park. Thus, it is hardly surprising that many of these 548 employees work second and third jobs and rely on programs like SNAP and ARKids just to survive. The university even has to maintain a food pantry to ensure that staff (and students) don't go hungry.

For decades, hourly wages have stagnated on the Fayetteville campus. The university argued that the matter was out of its hands, explaining that only state officials in Little Rock could raise wages. But this is no longer the case. Last May, the same board of trustees that oversees the Fayetteville campus approved a $14 minimum wage for employees at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

The university will insist that it is not paying Morris' buyout, but rather the money is coming from the Razorback Foundation. But this is a distinction without a difference. The only thing the Razorback Foundation sells is access to Razorback athletics. Thus, the university's control of the athletic program gives it de facto control of the Razorback Foundation and its assets.

Budgets are moral documents revealing the institution's priorities. The university is willing to pay millions to get rid of people. In addition to Morris' $10.1 million, Bret Bielema got $11.9 million in 2017, Mike Anderson received $3 million last March, and untold sums went to their assistants--a two-year total of more than $25 million.

The administration, though, claims to be unable to find $3.65 million to pay living wages to 548 people who continue to work and contribute to the university's success. The university is losing its way.


Michael Pierce teaches history at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and is vice president of the Arkansas Public Employees Union.

Editorial on 11/14/2019

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