Students: Pay college staff a living wage


MORE THAN 200 Middlebury College students gathered in Mead Chapel Thursday afternoon to express solidarity with facilities, dining services and other campus staff, who they say are not being paid a living wage. College administrators say they are studying the issue. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE JUNIOR Celia Gottlieb leads hundreds of fellow students in a campus action Thursday afternoon, advocating for a living wage for college staff. Independent photo/Steve James

AFTER GATHERING IN Mead Chapel Thursday afternoon, more than 200 Middlebury College students fanned out around campus to take letters and messages of support to campus staff members, including those who work in dining services and facilities. Students say the college isn’t paying these workers a living wage. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College junior Connor Wertz did not mince words in Mead Chapel on Thursday afternoon.

“This morning, the Trump administration cut access to food stamps for 700,000 people, and the first metric that The New York Times gave was how much money that would save the government,” he told a crowd of more than 200 students, plus a handful of faculty and staff. “The same values that are behind Trump cutting hundreds of thousands of food stamps are the same values that let Middlebury (College) employees be on food stamps in the first place.”

Wertz delivered his remarks as part of a protest that was organized by students to express solidarity with facilities, dining services and other college employees who students say are not being paid a living wage.

SOLIDARITY

“The idea (for the protest) was birthed out of a culmination of things: reporting by the Middlebury Campus (newspaper) citing low wages, observations of mistreatment of staff and school property, and a general lack of student awareness of these issues,” said junior Celia Gottlieb, a protest organizer. “I wanted to ... demonstrate to (staff) that this fight is not one they would have to navigate alone. Furthermore, I wanted to indicate to the administration that this would not be an issue they could sweep under the carpet.”

Students and others packed Mead Chapel at 12:30 Thursday afternoon to issue letters in support of Middlebury staff, explained senior Maren Walsh in an email to the Independent. Students then visited various dining halls to post the letters on bulletin boards and elsewhere.

“Students will also be encouraged to write additional letters to post on their facilities staffers’ doors,” Walsh said. “Organizers will collect these letters at a later date to compile and deliver them to the administration and staff council.”

The audience in Mead Chapel several times responded to Wertz with loud cheering.

“There is a problem,” he said, “when the (college) administration that applauds itself for being financially sustainable pays so little to some of its workers that they have to get a second or third job to make ends meet; when the same people that we ask to feed us need food stamps to feed their own family; when the same people that we ask to keep our dorm rooms warm need to use emergency chaplain’s funding to heat their own homes in the winter.”

Wertz was referring to financial conditions described by college employee Tim Parsons in a Nov. 21 letter to the Campus.

Parsons thanked the Campus for its “excellent recent coverage, editorials and overall support for staff here at Middlebury.” But, “these have been trying times for us,” he said.

“Positions that the administration referred to as ‘entry level’ in a recent open staff meeting — even though many have held those jobs for a decade or more — are paid a little more than $12 an hour,” Parsons explained.

According to the staff pay ranges described on the college website, the lowest starting wage for a Middlebury College employee is $11 per hour at the OP1 level.

The minimum wage in Vermont is $10.78 per hour.

In an article last January, the Campus cited a 2018 National Low Income Housing Coalition report suggesting that an Addison County resident would need to earn an average of at least $19.63 per hour — or work close to two full-time jobs at minimum wage — to afford rent and utilities.

COMPENSATION STUDY

The college says it’s looking into the issue.

Hours before the protest began, the administrators sent out a campus-wide email endorsing the student action and outlining the college’s plans.

“(We) want to reiterate that a top priority for Middlebury administration is to pay, at the very least, the market rate for full-time entry-level positions like those in Facilities and Dining Services,” administrators said.

Last spring the college decided to “fast-track” a study it had commissioned “because we understood that compensation for those positions, in particular, had fallen behind the market. We expect that data to be available early in the new year, and we’ll bring those wages in line with the market first.”

Wertz took umbrage with using the “market” as a measuring stick.

“It’s called a living wage, guys!” he said in his speech. “What this teaches us is that the market value is more important than the humanity of the people who work here. If we’re truly going to value our staff, Middlebury can’t just look around at what everybody else is doing ... that’s what a corporation does. A corporation pays its staff below a living wage.”

MOVING FORWARD

The response from students and staff, Gottlieb told the Independent, has been overwhelming.

The crowd in Mead Chapel was nearly three times the size organizers were expecting, and many staff members expressed solidarity and gratitude.

“As I walked around today our folks had a sense of pride like I have never seen before,” one staff member told Gottlieb in an email. “They were truly amazed that the students would go out of their way for them.”

Parsons was pleased with the administration’s statements, he said.

“I just hope they’ll put some sort of mechanism in place so we don’t have to go through this again in 10 years.”

Students said their action emerged from a course called “Race, Rhetoric and Protest,” taught by Professor of Writing And Rhetoric James Chase Sanchez. But students plan to keep the conversation going long after class is over.

“We need to see a dramatic change in the way the administration values its staff members,” Gottlieb said. “We will continue to monitor the process of altering staff wages, standing by our statement that the market rate is not good enough.”

College administrators ended their statement by applauding the students.

“Our vision statement asks us, among other things, to cross boundaries to create a better world,” they wrote. “We applaud our students for living out Middlebury’s mission — leading engaged, consequential, and creative lives contributing to their communities.”

Note: The Middlebury Campus newspaper has been a consistent and important driver of this conversation. Readers interested in learning more would do well to begin with a pair of recent Campus articles about unionization efforts and about custodial staff shortages.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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