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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 Harvard.

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.

This was a selection from The Daily Diatribe

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