A Living Wage: Harvard University
Doesn't Dig Very Deep in Proposal to Help Its Low-Income Workers
December 22, 2001
Last spring, protesting
students at Harvard forced the administration to set up a commission to
study the problem of Harvard's low-income workers not being paid a
"living wage" for the Boston area.
The commission just issued
its report, recommending that the current pay floor of $8.50 an hour for
janitors, guards and other low-wage workers be increased to $10.83 to $11.30
an hour. Collective bargaining between the workers and the university
could increase wages above that level.
At first glance this would
seem a major victory for the workers and their student supporters, since the
pay floor would increase at least 27 percent.
But several members of the
commission said a pay floor of $15-20 an hour is necessary to support a
family in the Boston area.
Let's see what kind of a
burden paying a real living wage to its workers would impose on
The recommended pay floor
would cost roughly $3 million annually. Harvard's 18,600 students pay
$30,000 a year in tuition. The recommended pay floor increase comes to
about $170 per student per year, about 1/2 of 1 percent! Setting the
pay floor at the living wage level thus increase tuition by $478 a year, or
a whopping 1 1/2 percent. Too much a burden in order to ensure that
the people who serve the students can feed their families, I suppose.
If not paid in the form of
increased tuition, the costs of the higher wages could come from Harvard's
$20 billion endowment. Assume the entire endowment earns only a 5%
tax-free bond return (in reality it almost certainly earns more than that,
but let's be conservative). The endowment therefore increases by $1
billion a year. The added $3 million in recommended wages would take
quite a big hunk of that: 3/10 of 1 percent. Increasing the wages to
the subsistence, living wage level would still use up less than 1% of the
endowment's yearly income. Again, that's apparently too large an onus
for Harvard to bear.
The fact that wages could be
increased 27% under the commission's proposal and such wages would still
fall far short of a true living wage, is a troublesome indication of just
how underpaid and exploited these Harvard workers have been.
And of course this isn't just
a problem at Harvard.
It is a fundamental part of
the "social contract"
that if you work a full-time job, contributing to the functioning of
society, you should be rewarded with enough funds to at least minimally
survive. It's a continuing scandal of enormous moral proportions that
for millions of low-income workers in this country, such a rule is honored
more in the breach. It's not that we can't easily afford to pay a
living wage: succumbing to our greed and selfishness, we just don't want to.