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Small wage change doesn’t address larger problem

September 7, 2018

This piece represents the opinion of the authors.
Caroline Carter

This fall, President Rose welcomed us back to campus with an email which included a section entitled “Our Commitment to Our Hourly Employees” in which he presented the College as an institution committed to its employees—a deceptive attempt to suggest serious introspection on the part of the College these past few months.

We chose to investigate his claims and sit down with workers to discuss the changes in the College’s compensation program, none of which were outlined in detail by President Rose.

Our conversations confirmed that these “changes” are inadequate. Instead, President Rose and the administration have re-framed a yearly review of Bowdoin’s compensation program and omitted key details.

Here are the key details that President Rose failed to provide the campus community:

Last week, Matthew Orlando, senior vice president for finance and administration & treasurer, announced to housekeepers the details of President Rose’s “[increases] in minimum starting wage rate(s) and supplemental pay:”

Second-shift employees (those who work an extra, late shift), who usually receive a seven percent wage increase over the standard hourly rate, will now receive a 10 percent increase, a mere three percent increase for working extra hours in addition to their regular shift. Third-shift employees will now receive 15 percent more than standard-shift, only a five percent increase from last year’s 10 percent.

According to the workers we interviewed, most rarely work extra shifts, because they are simply too tired.

“Yeah, we’re wiped out. Absolutely dead tired. Give everything we’ve got.”

Weekend wages are being increased by 20 cents per hour. Even so, the College only employs two full-time weekend housekeepers.

Additionally, many housekeepers work the majority of their hours during first shift, so the change barely affects them.

Although the College has raised its minimum wage, these minimal changes are insufficient. They are, frankly, a slap to the face.

“Everybody got about 40 cents … I can tell ya … even with ranks and seniority … pay doesn’t go up at all.”

After the new “changes,” workers also lament the fact that new employees can still make more than those who have been at the College for years. Workers are not sure why some receive raises and others don’t.

“They just had an opening for a senior housekeeper position and only one person applied … She’s only been here for a year … She went from housekeeper 1 to senior. Supposedly, she got a good raise … I didn’t see a dime. I’m sure she’s making more than me, and I’ve been here for eleven years.”

The administration’s sinister tactic of arbitrary promotions serves to create division amongst workers which, in turn, prevents worker solidarity.

“The new ones are starting out with as much as somebody who’s been here for years … They hired a guy this summer, and while he was training, we were getting the same amount of money, and then he was quickly making more than everybody else.”

Additionally, the procedure to apply for the position of senior housekeeper is unjustifiably complicated, presenting a barrier to possible applicants:

“I’ve been working here for years, but you have to fill out an application with a cover letter, a resumé and do four interviews! This was too much. Then, my supervisor told me the position was gone… then it was given to someone else!”

Regardless, workers in senior housekeeper positions (and other long-time employees without this title) are still not making a living wage.

One non-senior worker we spoke to has been working here for five years and currently makes $12.60, just cents more than a new-hire today (at the new starting wage of $12.35). Another, who has been here close to four years, is making a little under the same amount.

Any increases in wages are neutralized by rising inflation. On the federal level, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Inflation Tool shows us that the recent “changes” in the College’s compensation program almost precisely account for inflation and do not in fact increase the wage in pure buying power. At the same time, the cost of living in coastal Maine is rising.

“Especially here in coastal Maine, everything’s going up: gas, groceries, bills—and wages aren’t,” one worker responded.

“My light bill went up from $150 to $175 this year, and my paycheck isn’t keeping up with that.”

“Whenever we buy groceries, we always get to the nitty gritty. Yesterday, we went to buy groceries, and I wanted to buy grapes—I love grapes!—and after weighing them, they came out to three dollars. I told my husband to put them back. It’s healthy, but we can’t justify doing it.”

President Rose conveniently left these details out of his email, demonstrating the College’s willingness to deceive its workers and the campus community.

Workers themselves articulated the contradiction that mistreatment, low wages and blatant dishonesty from the administration presents. “We’re at Bowdoin. I mean, this is supposed to be a prestigious college, but we don’t feel it.”

One worker, for example, after working at Bowdoin for a year, hesitated before taking a full-time position as a housekeeper.

“I didn’t know if I wanted to stay here,” she said.

“You don’t know how we’re being treated. You really don’t. We’re treated like dirt, all because it says ‘housekeeping’ on our shirt.”

Most workers expressed dismay at “not having any communication with the administration” and “not being informed” of changes except until after decisions were made.

“Behind Gibson, they just put in all that greenery. That’s a salary! They’re making all these decisions behind the scenes … Are these things are really a priority?’”

Near the end of one interview, we asked workers if President Rose had ever spoken with them personally about any of these issues.

“We had a meeting last year…and the housekeepers just snooped down and looked at their chairs.”

Referring to President Rose’s recent email, one worker responded.

“It was kind of degrading…like they can find housekeepers anywhere. It felt like, ‘you don’t like it? Leave. Find someplace else.’”

In our petition last Spring, which gathered nearly 900 signatures, we asked the College to form a working group in order to initiate real dialogue around this issue, with those affected by the changes as part of the decision-making process. These demands have yet to be recognized.

Workers will not stand for this. Neither will our community. Letting this issue go means turning our backs on those who make Bowdoin the place we know and love. If we want to pursue the “Common Good,” we must align our values with action—first, within our own institution.

If steps are not taken in the right direction, workers, with the support of our community, will only increase pressure on the administration to act with openness and integrity instead of the deceit and dishonesty they have shown thus far. Already, workers are fed up.

“I was talking to a professor the other day about what the administration would do if, right before overtime, we all decided to protest. They would have no one to fill in, especially during graduation. It’s sad sometimes, to have to think that way.”

Still, the College may continue to silence workers and maintain its unlivable wage policy. Workers are not numb to this apathy. Already, they feel pressured to look elsewhere:

“I saw a job for $16 in Lewiston … $16 in Freeport … There were openings, and we put in applications … Given a chance, that’s where I’m going.”

Written by student members of Bowdoin Labor Alliance: Diego Grossmann ’20, Sarisha Kurup ’21 and Benjamin Ray ’20.

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