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December 5, 2006

A mile in worn down shoes

By CASEY PALMER, The Vermont Cynic

The story of a typical UVM employee exemplifies the plight of the University's backbone

The character Joan is not a UVM employee, but the events of her story are true accounts of the lives of actual UVM employees.

5:45 a.m.

Alarm blaring, Joan groans and rolls over. Slamming her hand down on the alarm clock she lies in bed for a minute, thinking seriously about calling into work sick. She has never felt so tired in her life. She heads quickly for the shower where, once beneath the stream of hot water, she thinks about what to pack her daughter for lunch and how she's going to pay the heating bill.

6:13 a.m.

Joan gets dressed in her work attire: a pair of old jeans, a short-sleeve shirt, old sneakers coming apart at the sole, and a fleece jacket. She wishes she had a winter coat, but she can't remember the last time she had enough extra spending money to buy herself something new. Struggling to get her daughter awake and dressed, Joan eventually makes her way to the small kitchen. The fridge is all but empty, but she scrounges a turkey s sandwich, an apple and juice box for her daughter's lunch.

6:20 a.m.

A graying woman walks into the kitchen and kisses Joan on the cheek. She smiles and says good morning as she starts a pot of coffee. Though Joan is comfortable living in her mother's home, she feels that at 31-years-old, she has failed by not being able to make it on her own. Joan loads her daughter into the backseat of her 1990 Honda Civic. Last year, she had to choose between snow tires and new pants for her daughter. Joan chose the pants.

6:59 a.m.

Joan drops her daughter off at daycare (run by her sister) and arrives, nearly on the dot, at Harris-Millis for the daily housekeepers meeting. She will be doing housekeeping in Harris today, followed by cleaning the bathrooms and the floor near the front desk.

7:11 a.m.

A few housekeepers, Joan included, begin work on the fourth floor in Harris. She takes charge of vacuuming all through the hallways and refilling the paper products in the bathroom. This is harder work than descriptions let on; she has bruises on her hands from stuffing rolls of toilet paper into dispensers and her upper arms are sore by lunch.

11:37 a.m.

Joan arrives downstairs for lunch, remembering that in the morning she hadn't taken the time to pack her own. She doesn't have the money to buy food, so she decides to tough it out. Fortunately, another housekeeper sacrifices her orange for the lunchless Joan. One of her coworkers has a copy of The Vermont Cynic and is reading aloud the article about the "bacterial" virus affecting some students in Harris. In the article, one student claims poorly cleaned bathrooms causes the infection. Joan attempts to thwart it but a single tear manages to roll down her cheek. She doesn't understand how anything like this could happen; she cleans well, and works hard, but somehow immediately feels she's to blame.

12:34 p.m.

It's time to go back to work. Joan finishes up the housekeeping in Harris with the other housekeepers and then makes her way to the lobby to clean the bathrooms and mop the floors. A female student slips on the wet floor and regardless of the caution sign to her immediate left, she still sends a glare in Joan's direction. Still feeling uneasy over the discussion during her lunch break, Joan feels as if, in some way, she is actually responsible and rushes to offer the student a hand.

3:33 p.m.

Joan zips up her fleece, says goodbye to the remaining custodians and housekeepers, and heads back out to her car. Her stomach is growling as she drives home and stresses over what she will conjure for dinner.

4:10 p.m.

Sitting in a loan specialist's office at Banknorth, the Christmas decorations are a sickening reminder of an expensive holiday season ahead of her. The banker returns from the other room and Joan automatically asks to take out another personal loan. When asked the purpose, Joan replies that it is going to be used to renovate her kitchen. In reality, the loan will be used to buy Christmas presents Joan could not otherwise afford.

5:00 p.m.

Joan picks up her daughter from daycare and is on her way home when she decides to stop at the grocery store to buy the ingredients needed for a successful "taco night." She places her daughter in the front of the cart and speeds down an aisle, awestruck by her daughter's excited squeals. She mentally thanks her second employer for giving her the week off to get some rest; without that time, this moment with her daughter wouldn't have been possible. Working nights makes it so Joan can really only spend time with her daughter on the weekends; by then, all she wants to do is sleep anyway.
5:44 p.m.

Joan and her daughter arrive back home and, as they walk through the front door, the smell of a baked ham warms their nostrils. Joan's mother has prepared dinner for the family. Joan is thrilled by the free meal and thinks "taco night" will be postponed until tomorrow night. The ringing phone interrupts dinner. Joan's second employer, Brooks Pharmacy, needs her to come to work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Another employee has caught a "terrible cold." Needing the extra money, Joan agrees.

8:30 p.m.

After an hour of TV and reading, Joan picks up her sleepy daughter to carry her to bed. She tucks her in and kisses her goodnight. In order for Joan to sleep in 10 extra minutes the next morning, she lays out her housekeeping clothes and irons her Brooks uniform for tomorrow night's shift. She lies in bed, fiscal worries dancing in her head for an hour before she finally drifts off to sleep.

The Vermont Livable Wage Campaign defines a livable wage as the pay rate needed to supply basic needs such as food, housing, childcare, health care, clothing and transportation.

It is important to understand that a livable wage is not the same thing as a minimum wage; in Vermont, the minimum wage is currently $7.25/hr, or $14,500/yr. Based on the findings of the State of Vermont Joint Fiscal Office (JFO) 2005 Basic Needs Budget, the 2006 livable wage for a single person should be $12.28/hr, or about $25,500/yr.

The Basic Needs and Equitable Compensation Taskforce, assigned by President Fogel to research the livable wage issue, discovered that as of May 2006, there were over 250 workers directly employed by UVM not earning a sufficient wage, as defined by JFO. There are 164 employees making over $100,000 annually.

These 250 employees do not consist of contracted workers, which include all Sodexho employees (those who work in the dining services), construction crews, and a certain amount of grounds keepers. Direct UVM employees not receiving a livable wage consist mostly of custodial, clerical and maintenance staff.

UVM could potentially phase out underpaid contracted workers by only outsourcing with companies that adhere to paying their employees livable wages. According to the Livable Wage Campaign, "there are roughly 200 Sodexho workers at UVM who on average earn $8.00/hr."

The Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), a national organization which opened a chapter on campus last year, has stated its three main goals: to attain a livable wage for all University employees; to give UVM workers the freedom to organize (Sodexho employees, for instance, are not permitted to discuss their wages with fellow employees); and to initiate responsible contracted policies - a guarantee that contracted corporations will treat their employees fairly.

Across campus, SLAP has become the voice for the workers who otherwise have no voice of their own. "We're not working for the workers; we're working with the workers. Students and workers uniting for justice," said Maxwell Tracy, a SLAP Co-coordinator.

Tom Stout, a maintenance technician for Residential Life, commented on the extent to which underpaid employees have to work to survive and the extent to which they dedicate their time and efforts to the work that they are committed to.

"What is livable and what is living? There's a huge difference. Yeah, livable, I can sit in my house all day and my bills are paid. What about going on a vacation? There are people working here who will never see Disney. Say nothing of Disney, there are people working here who will never go to the Great Escape in Lake George," he said.

Even with a definable livable wage, Stout and Tracy alike still believe the concept of livable wage isn't enough to satisfy human needs; it is everything short of luxury, everything short of the lifestyles of the 164 employees at UVM (within itself a multi-million dollar budget) who make over $100,000 each year, according to the Livable Wage Campaign.

In 2005, the Livable Wage Campaign originally came up with a figure of approximately $2.5 million per year to raise all workers to a livable wage. The campaign stated that UVM now draws all of its revenue directly from tuition and fees, and therefore "an increase in budget wouldn't be directly placed on the back of students."

That number has since changed. BNEC's report claims a much smaller figure: between $700,000 and $1 million.

Despite the release of BNEC's preliminary report, which President Fogel received as soon as it was completed in September, there has been no response from the president indicating he's making any moves toward change.

"You know, it's pretty ridiculous if you think about it because [Fogel] created it so hastily and made such a big deal out of it, this kind of 'magic bullet' solution to all the problems - and there's been no reaction from him," Tracy said.

UVM is stuck (whether fairly or not), with a reputation of being a socially responsible and liberal place to learn and work. However, the livable wage issue has forced the UVM community to question whether the University truly has the integrity to take on challenges and the compassion for humanity it boasts.

"We can create this beautiful image of ourselves," Tracy said. "But on the ground, all the people behind the scenes who make it work, if we're not paying them a minimum wage and giving them what they need, are we really a socially just place?"


© Copyright 2006 Vermont Cynic