Leslie Parson in McClurg Dining Hall. Photo by Rob Mohr (C’21).
By Max Saltman
I sat in the grass by Gailor Hall while Leslie Parson told me what it was like to have her water shut off. It was the late afternoon, around four o’clock, and the shadows from the Adirondack chairs and oak trees slid over the lawn and up McClurg’s water-stained back wall. Parson, who grew up in Coalmont and lives in Monteagle, had just finished her usual shift at the McClurg bakery, which starts at five a.m. and ends around three. She tucked her baker’s smock neatly in the crook of her elbow, and told me that even on a combined income, she and her husband still struggle to pay their bills. When she began working at McClurg, about seven years ago, their utility company shut off the water at their farm multiple times.
“And you might say,” Parson said, “‘Well, how do you not pay your water bill?’ At the time, I had a $10,000 bank note that had to be paid. I had all of my regular utilities. I had to have car insurance, or I couldn’t drive. I was paying for gas to get back to work.”
She paused. “And it’s not like it got shut off for very long…it happened on a weekend, or towards the end of the week. So just about three days without running water.”
Parson says that her situation isn’t unusual for McClurg employees. The starting hourly rate today, $9.75, is about two dollars more than it was when she began working here, but that’s still only $20,170 annually. After seven years, Parson herself makes $11.37 an hour, or just under $23,000 per year under a forty-hour work week. To save money, she often eats a big meal at McClurg when her shift ends and forgoes dinner at home, something she says many of her coworkers do, too.
“I plan it that way,” she said, “because that’s a meal that I don’t have to feed myself.”
“A lot of people don’t realize,” she continued, “…that work in dining services…it’s kind of like one of those things where you’re just scraping by? I know that last year we had at least two people that I know of for sure that were homeless that worked here.”
She explained that they lived out of their trucks, showering at the Fowler Center before their shifts. Both employees have places to stay now, as far as Parson knows.
And yet the struggles born from working on McClurg wages don’t end at food insecurity, utility shutoffs, and homelessness. While the University offers health insurance to its employees at rather generous premiums through BlueCross BlueShield, Parson and her husband are both uninsured. Amid the worst pandemic in remembered history, Parson can’t afford even the cheapest option ($368.33 per month or $204.94 bi-weekly) for an employee plus one on her wages. Parson suffers from a permanent heart condition, and a trip to the hospital last year cost her $13,000, a bill she’s still paying today.
“If I have to go to the doctor,” she said, “I’m done for. That’s it.”
Parson and a few coworkers brought all of these issues up at an open staff meeting in Convocation Hall last spring. According to Parson, the response from the administrators there, who included former Vice-Chancellor McCardell and Provost Nancy Berner, “was that [wages and benefits] is something that’s constantly looked at.”
This response is corroborated by emails I exchanged with Jessica Welch, the compensation specialist in Sewanee’s human resources department. She wrote that the University’s hiring plan allows for workers to rise from the lowest pay brackets after being evaluated in terms of education and work experience.
“This allows us to hire almost all of our staff at a wage above the minimum $9.75.” she wrote, “…Every year, we look at multiple scenarios that illustrate ways to enhance the compensation package of our employees. Factoring in institutional budgetary constraints and economic environment, the University annually attempts to make improvements to wages as best we are able.”
Parson said that she didn’t have a response to the administrators’ answer, but that one of her coworkers did.
“She had something instantly that she needed to say,” she recalled, “She said ‘Can you look at it more? Because obviously there’s some of us that can’t live on what we’re making.’”
Parson was careful to clarify to me that she felt no ill will towards the administrators at the meeting. At the end of the day, she said she understood there was only so much that they could do, and that the money ultimately flows from the Board of Regents. The University’s ordinances stipulate in 4:1 that the “salaries or wages of employees…come within the budget approved” by the Board, not the Vice-Chancellor or anyone else at the meeting.
“We can only make so much noise,” she said, “And unless it somehow makes it to the Regents, that’s kind of as far as we can get…The people here on campus doing the work, they’re really doing all that they can. The Regents come in from wherever they’re at, and they make those big decisions.”
“I wish it was more of a one-on-one with them,” she continued, “Because you always feel like you’re going through some kind of middleman.”
Through the COVID-19 pandemic, some have argued that essential workers like Sewanee’s dining staff ought to have hazard pay to compensate for the dangers of working in-person amid a deadly disease with no known cure. Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institute made a particularly good case for it in April. Like most of America’s front-line workers, the dining staff at Sewanee haven’t been offered hazard pay. However, Jessica Welch wrote to me in an email that, in addition to being paid regularly despite shortened hours in the spring, “health care providers have been pleased with the safety training and protocols and PPE the University has provided to staff.” In our interview, Parson said Rick Wright, the head chef for Sewanee Dining, argued in favor of hazard pay at the start of the pandemic.
I spoke to Wright, better known as Chef Rick, in the apse of Frat Side at McClurg, about ten feet apart and surrounded by the echoing din of students returning their dishes and scraping leftovers into the trash. He confirmed that he had argued in favor of hazard pay, but preferred the term “differential pay,” instead.
“I think you have to be careful when saying something is a ‘hazard’ because of all that that implies,” he said, “But I think extreme times call for some sort of compensation. There are people here on campus who can choose whether or not to come to work. They can work from home. But food service doesn’t really allow that.”
Wright elaborated that he advocates not only paying Sewanee’s dining employees hazard (or differential) pay, but also a living wage.
“Here in the South, we have a tradition of paying really low wages.” Wright said, “That’s why companies always relocate here, because they can pay people less money. And they always make the argument that the cost of living here is a lot less.”
Wright then explained that a colleague of his who runs dining operations at Yale told him that the starting salary for dining staff there is seventeen dollars an hour. After hearing that, Wright asked another employee of the University (whom he declined to name) why Sewanee couldn’t pay their workers that much.
“He says, ‘Well, the cost of living is a lot more at Yale, so they need more money,’” recalled Wright, “That seems like a really bad argument to me. To base someone’s value on how much it costs them to live.” Wright sighed, his brow furrowed as he looked over the two tables between us.
“I’ve put people up in hotel rooms here, you know,” he said, “I’ve taken them to the [Community Action Committee at Otey Parish] so they can get money for utilities, we’ve taken food to people’s homes, we’ve taken toiletries to people’s homes, because that’s how poor they are.”
Wright went on to tell me that he trusts the University to act on this issue. He told me that he’d heard that a new pay increase for workers is “in the works.” The real issue, he said, is nailing down what exactly a living wage is.
“The University wants to do the right thing,” Wright concluded, “But it can’t figure out what that is.”
But it seems they’ve already figured it out. According to a Strategic Plan assessment from January 2018, the University committed to paying employees a living wage in 2012, and that same year, they raised the starting wage from $7.25 (the federal minimum) to $9.15. It was brought up to $9.50 in 2017, then to $9.75 in 2018. So, in the eight years since 2012, the starting wage has raised exactly 60 cents, slower than the dollar has inflated. $9.15 in 2012 is worth $10.33 in 2020, meaning that employees in 2012 were making over a dollar more in terms of purchasing power than starting employees today.
In addition to their written commitment to a living wage, Sewanee has a recorded method for determining it. The University explains it in part of the report they submitted in 2018 to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) for a STARS rating, which grades the sustainability of colleges and universities.
Sewanee’s method utilizes the Living Wage Calculator at MIT (a component required by AASHE), along with “data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on counties where most of our employees live (i.e., Franklin, Marion, and Grundy counties)” and “college and university salary data from College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.”
Dr. Amy Glasmeier, the creator of the Living Wage Calculator, makes it clear in her FAQ that while “living wage calculator” is an attractive euphemism, it might be more accurately dubbed a “minimum subsistence wage calculator.” She writes:
“The living wage model does not include funds that cover what many may consider as necessities enjoyed by many Americans….The living wage is the minimum income standard that, if met, draws a very fine line between the financial independence of the working poor and the need to seek out public assistance or suffer consistent and severe housing and food insecurity. In light of this fact, the living wage is perhaps better defined as a minimum subsistence wage for persons living in the United States.”
So, it isn’t just that Sewanee ought to pay a living wage; they ought to pay their employees more. It strikes me as insane that the University would essentially brag about paying employees the bare minimum. Especially when an employee like Leslie, who makes about two dollars more than their “living wage,” can barely keep her head above water.
Sewanee stated in their STARS submission, which was authored by former sustainability program manager Nick Cookson, that they raised the starting wage to $9.15 in 2015. This is three years later than the 2012 date they gave in January 2018’s strategic initiative reevaluation. So on top of paying low wages, the University additionally appears unsure of when, exactly, it last raised them.
Yet the fulcrum of all this is not the “when” of wages, but the “what.” The Board of Regents needs to expand the payroll budget at their next meeting. After that, the University needs to significantly raise wages beyond minimum subsistence. We students need to demand they do both. To do otherwise makes us all complicit in the hunger and homelessness of University workers.
In my email exchange with Welch, she wrote that the University addresses cost-of-living issues among its employees through a partnership with “CAPTRUST, one of the largest registered investment advisors in the U.S. offering a broad range of services to institutional clients, to provide employees with free, confidential financial advising.” This sounds nice, but wouldn’t it be easier to pay your employees more than eleven dollars an hour than to give them free financial advice? If they can’t eat dinner, they’re probably not going to have money to invest.
Furthermore, I’m not particularly convinced that wages will rise without significant student and alumni action and attention. Towards the end of our conversation, Rick Wright assured me that the wage question was being addressed by the right people and urged that students begin a “conversation” surrounding labor issues on the Mountain. He noted that the “How Then Shall We Eat” series of dinner discussions run by Sewanee Dining was due to have a talk on the living wage in March, but the cancellation of the rest of the semester’s in-person classes prevented it.
“You need a conversation,” he said, “You want to start this slowly, because you’re dealing with an old system that won’t respond correctly if you don’t engage with it the right way.”
I admire that sentiment, but I’ve attended a “How Then Shall We Eat” discussion. The people who go to civil conversations like that are usually well aware of the problems being discussed in the first place. Then, they go home. After the success of massive student outrage against the enforcement of already-existing drug laws, who can say that there even is a “right way” to engage with the University anymore?
Sewanee students are incredibly invulnerable to most consequences if we vigorously, peacefully protest. The University can’t fire us; we’re their customers. The exploitation of working people on the Domain fundamentally challenges the ethics of receiving an education here. This is clearly a crisis, not just a conversation.