Clerical staff voice concerns

Kristin Gustafson

Clerical staff demands for better pay dominated Friday’s Board of Regents’ open forum on the University’s budget and drowned out the few concerns raised about tuition, transportation, technology and faculty salaries.
More than 100 people packed into the Gateway alumni center boardroom wearing stickers that read “Overworked, Underpaid & Standing Up” and cheered as 14 University employees approached the board one by one to present personal stories.
Regents said they don’t determine clerical wages because the contract issue is negotiated between the employees’ union and University human resources. However, the board does formally approve the contracts with a vote and considers issues impacting the campus as a whole.
So, for more than an hour, University clerical employees approached the regents and University President Mark Yudof to plead their case. They told personal anecdotes of household budgets, second jobs and jobs paying less than a liveable wage.
Several complained the University finds funding for things it has deemed important — such as retaining top faculty members, pay increases for a football coach and Yudof’s two pay raises — but won’t find comparable money for clerical staff.
The gap between top and bottom University salaries widens each year, they said. And for many, take-home pay has decreased because of health insurance and other living expenses.
Debra Clemente, ecology, evolution and behavior senior secretary, said the University’s attitude toward clerical staff is reflected in its low-paying salaries.
To make ends meet, Clemente works two jobs, and for the past three years, she has started her day at 3 a.m. for her first job before coming to her full-time University job.
Clemente, a 15-year University employee, asked regents to put themselves in her shoes and consider the pay and promotion issues addressed.
“Historically, when a group decides to dehumanize another group, the rules of fairness change. … Those in power believe themselves to deserve a better life and better standard of living than those whose lives are out of necessity spent primarily on the struggle to make ends meet,” she said. “This is wrong. There should be no such barriers within a University community.”
Doreen Cales, a University employee since 1989, told regents she is taking home $5 less per paycheck after her 2 percent pay increase received in December was swallowed up by a 50 percent health premium hike in January.
“You guys need to make our salaries a priority,” she said.
Kathleen Olakunle, surgery office specialist, said she is appalled at the University’s unwillingness to pay clerical wages a rate comparable to other state institutions and told of an $8,000 gap between her University pay and that of a comparable position in another state institution.
“The wages at the University of Minnesota … remain at poverty level year after year after year,” she said.
And University employee optional retirement and education benefits are beyond her reach, the 51-year-old employee said. “I don’t have any spare money to invest in alternative retirement plans, and I don’t feel I will ever be able to retire. I would love to continue my education on a regents scholarship, but I can’t even afford the books.”
Following the presentations, Regents Chairwoman Patricia Spence said, “I’m very concerned about the wages … and the opportunity to advance.”
Spence said she was especially concerned that many who spoke still hold entry-level positions after many years at the University. “I would like to know how widespread that is.”
Attitudes and workplace perceptions are a board issue, Spence said. “If a large percentage of the clerical workers do really believe they are not appreciated, that is a serious problem we need to rectify.”
Yudof will re-examine the entry-level salaries and would like to get minimum salaries up to a living-wage level, he said.
Health care cost issues are a concern for the whole University, he said. “A lot of employees, not just clerical, get a raise, and the next time they look at their paycheck, their health insurance has eaten it all up.
But Yudof defended salary differences between clerical staff and other University positions as necessary in the marketplace of wages.
“People are equal as human beings and in worth, but if we are hiring a molecular biologist, he or she will come with a different salary than if we are hiring someone who works in a clerical job or facilities,” Yudof said. “Their concerns are well-founded … but we are responding to two different markets.”
The board will vote on the budget May 12.
Kristin Gustafson covers University administration and federal government and welcomes comments at [email protected]