After months of conversations with workers to formulate Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA) demands, and Orient reporting on Bowdoin’s compensation program, we lament that only public pressure could generate a response from the College. We are deeply troubled by the College’s effort to mischaracterize student and worker demands, malign the Orient’s reporting, reject Maine Department of Labor standards and silence workers’ voices. Well-researched facts, state standards and the clear concerns of workers affected by an unlivable wage are not “misperceptions and incorrect or incomplete information,” as Matt Orlando wrote in his letter to the editor. Yet, the character of the College’s response is unsurprising; it reflects and reaffirms a workplace structure that excludes workers from any decision-making process.
The College claims that “students have voiced concerns about job titles and wages” for cleaning staff, but these concerns arose from workers themselves. To pretend that workers aren’t—or shouldn’t be—part of this conversation is to pretend they are not part of our community. BLA has strived to publicize worker’s voices, while the College has only sought to silence them.
The claim that unlivable wages are more important to students than to workers negates the voices of courageous workers who have publicly advocated for necessary changes, invalidates others who have supported the cause privately and pretends that many workers do not feel uncomfortable, afraid or disempowered to speak their truth.
Cleaning staff must consider job security. As an “at-will” state, Maine employees can be terminated at any time. Workers rightly fear that voicing their concerns publicly may lead to retaliation or even termination. Targeted intimidation and questioning of cleaning staff who have interacted with BLA only confirms these fears.
Beyond mischaracterizing the BLA community as a “student movement,” the College has tactfully reframed student and worker demands, and contested the Orient’s reporting. Specifically, the Orient revealed that the College rejects state labor standards, which estimate the average wages for custodial staff at $14.10. The College responded by claiming that, starting July 1, “the average [custodian] will earn an estimated $14.95.”
Yet, workers and students demanded a base—not average—wage increase; a starting wage of $12.50 is insufficient to provide financial security. The College’s attempted fix ignores the pressing needs of the cleaning staff who will still be paid an unlivable base wage. Twenty-five thousand dollars a year from Bowdoin is unsustainable; it amounts to $12,000 less than our county’s average income. This means that many full-time workers at our almost multibillion-dollar institution still need to work multiple other jobs to get by. This is an outrage and demands immediate rectification.
A $15 starting wage is fully realistic. Assuming a 50-person cleaning staff, Bowdoin could raise all wages by $2.50 and still preserve pre-existing wage differentials between staff. The yearly cost of this life-changing wage increase would amount to a mere $250,000—a drop in the bucket for Bowdoin.
Two hundred fifty thousand dollars amounts to 4.9 percent of our bloated athletic budget’s “not allocated expenses”—which total $5,076,793, a figure mysteriously five times larger than most other NESCAC schools. It’s 2.5 percent of our new football field, on which Bowdoin has won one game. It’s 1.5 percent of the $16.5 million Roux Center. It’s 9.2 percent of Paula Volent’s salary and half of President Rose’s. Orlando himself makes $235,000—nearly enough to change the lives of 50 essential members of our community.
Orlando justifies Bowdoin’s low wages citing obscure “third-party data” and fails to define what he means by: “a comparison of compensation for employees in various roles across institutions [based] on their actual job responsibilities and duties and the total compensation—wages and benefits—they receive.”
How does this “comparison” differ from the deep research presented in the Orient’s report, which compared Bowdoin cleaning staff’s starting wages and benefits to compensation programs at comparable institutions?
Still, any market-based comparison—with comparable institutions, local high schools or Walmart—ignores the fact that full-time workers at these employers also struggle to get by. Data should not come before people—not when Bowdoin can clearly put people first. Bowdoin can and should increase its starting wage, and consequently drive change across the regional economy, if not beyond.
Orlando and other administrators deny the ability of Bowdoin to adequately care for our community members. When the Maine Beacon asked Scott Hood, senior vice president for communications and public affairs at Bowdoin, if the College considers local rent costs or the massive pay disparities between campus employees when determining wages, he presented these as “larger public policy questions outside the scope of Bowdoin’s everyday practices.” Shouldn’t making sure workers can afford rent, food and other daily costs of living in our area be our foremost priority when determining wages? Every single person on our campus knows that Bowdoin can afford to sacrifice a degree of opulence so full-time cleaning staff can take home an income from Bowdoin that reflects their commitment.
Even a $15 minimum wage would still keep many cleaning staff below Maine’s median income. Yet, it might mean having to pick up less extra work, which would allow that much more time for workers to live meaningful lives. Beyond a minimum wage, it would only cost $590,000 a year for Bowdoin to raise starting cleaning staff up to the Cumberland County per-capita income of $37,000 and maintain wage differentials with current employees. These changes would vault workers into the middle class and bring the families of senior employees, often primary wage earners, closer to the median family income of $96,000. Five hundred ninety thousand dollars amount to less than half the $1.2 million spent on yearly “cyclical replacements of computer lab and classroom equipment, employee computers,” and other upgrades—as one example. A fraction of the cost of Bowdoin’s many new building projects would ensure that all new staff brought in to maintain these buildings could work full-time without having to supplement Bowdoin’s unlivable wage with extra work elsewhere.
Workers wonder if anyone will take these new jobs, or if new positions will even be offered. Already after new construction, there is more work than current staff can handle—leading to increased injuries, stress and overwork. If Bowdoin doesn’t rectify its wage policy and assure that all new and current workers feel valued and financially secure, future expansion is unsustainable.
Diego Grossmann and Benjamin Ray are members of the Class of 2020.
Editor’s Note, 3/29/19 at 11:45 a.m.: This article has been updated to clarify a comparison to the average income in Cumberland County.