By Max Saltman
As Sewanee’s starvation salaries have infiltrated the College’s consciousness in recent weeks, so have a group of common arguments against higher wages. In an effort to save time, I’ve compiled here a list of responses, offered one-by-one, as a sort of catechism in favor of a $15 minimum wage for Sewanee’s workers. These are all real arguments I’ve heard. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and I encourage anyone with arguments beyond those listed here to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and a recession. The time just isn’t right.”
As Cambridge scholar F.M. Cornford wrote in his 1908 pamphlet on academic politics Microcosmographia Academica, the “Principle of Unripe Time” relies on the fear that the right time for action has yet to arrive. Unsurprisingly, the people who say this rarely provide any hint of the best time to make changes.
“Time, by the way, is like the medlar;” writes Cornford, “it has a trick of going rotten before it is ripe.”
Yearly tuition at Sewanee rose by $3,000 between Easter 2017 and Advent 2017, and that was when the economy was good. Comparatively, starting wages at Sewanee rose 60 cents since 2012 — less than ten cents per year, and slower than the dollar lost value. Time has indeed gone rotten, but it’s all the more reason to get this right. The pandemic required us to rethink everything about how we live and learn on the Mountain. We should continue in that spirit and at least commit to raising the wage within a few years.
“A higher wage at Sewanee will hurt surrounding businesses.”
This is a particularly pernicious myth about minimum wages, likely stemming from the idea that a higher national minimum wage would have a negative effect on employment. However, in a landmark metastudy in 2013, John Schmitt at the Center for Economics and Policy Research established that modest increases in the minimum wage have no discernible effect on employment. Among the “channels of adjustment” businesses take on or experience that make this possible are turnover reductions, “reductions in the wages of higher earners, and small price increases.”
The concern that a higher wage at Sewanee would draw employees or money away from other businesses on and around the Mountain is also unlikely, since a) businesses like Walmart already pay their employees a higher starting wage than us, b) the likely low employee turnover rate at Sewanee resulting from a higher wage will make any siphoning effect short-term at most, and c) Sewanee, as a University that caters exclusively to students, is not really competing with small businesses like Shenanigans, the Blue Chair, the Smokehouse, et cetera. In all probability, Sewanee raising their wage would actually bring money into local businesses, since employees at the University will have more to spend.
“Raising the wage will take money away from other, more important things, like scholarships for underprivileged students.”
To pit poor students against poor staff like this is frustrating, but the argument is made more infuriating by its irrelevance. The money required to raise the wage would presumably be cobbled together through voluntary cuts from the salaries of highly paid administrators, the elimination of cost inefficiencies, changes in investment strategies, and/or holding off on building renovations and new construction projects, along with myriad other options to cull the capital needed for this sort of action. If we were calling for money previously consolidated through the methods outlined above to be diverted to a wage increase, then an argument like the above might be made in better faith. But this is not a zero-sum game; if we aren’t taking money from scholarship funds to raise the wage, then we aren’t taking money from scholarships.
I agree that we should have a holistic exchange of ideas regarding raising the wage, but creating mutually exclusive situations where they do not exist helps no one. There was no talk of hurting scholarship students when we decided to test everyone for COVID every week, and rightly so. The testing regime is a vitally important safety measure, and questioning it as a matter of student safety versus student financial security is a false trade-off.
Additionally, we must recall that there was none of this hemming and hawing when we chartered a bus to carry handfuls of students a half mile down Tennessee Avenue to Cravens, presumably because we aren’t paying for it with money set aside for scholarships. The best way to think about a wage increase, in my mind, is as an operating cost. If Sewanee doesn’t have the money to pay its employees appropriately, it doesn’t have the money to operate as an institution.
Finally, this argument ignores the money that Sewanee might save in the long run by raising wages, money that could be used for, say, more scholarships among the unhomed and underprivileged. Higher wages allow people to make better choices about their health, likely reducing sick time taken among employees and overall absenteeism. It would furthermore likely reduce employee turnover, something Sewanee struggles with, and increase productivity due to higher morale among staff.
“Raising the wage will cost 3 million dollars per year, and we have a 8.1 million dollar deficit. The numbers just don’t work.”
This argument goes back to the idea that the time isn’t right to raise the wage. I understand the daunting nature of these figures, but we need to keep in mind that COVID testing alone cost us 5 million dollars out of the 8.1. We paid for it without complaint because it was required to keep us safe. It also isn’t unreasonable to think that we could have saved money on COVID testing through more efficient methods, like pool testing as opposed to individual testing. We ought to look at paying employees properly with the same urgency and care that we grant a public health crisis, and afford staff the same creative financing that we gave to our testing regime.
Remember also that Sewanee could make a commitment to increasing its wages to $15 eventually, as our peer institution Rhodes College did last year. If the concern is about an immediate $5 wage hike significantly damaging the University’s finances, I see little reason why Sewanee can’t make a commitment to gradually-enacted higher wages in the future.
“This is socialism.”
No, it isn’t.
“It’s easy for you to call for change like this, but you’re not the one who has to figure this stuff out.”
Think about the implication of this statement for a moment. Imagine if your doctor said this to you if you came into the emergency room with a broken leg, asking for medical attention.
“Easy for you to say,” says your doctor, “But you’re not the one who has to set this compound fracture.”
Of course we’re not the ones who have to “figure this out” — it’s exactly why we’re calling for university leadership to raise the wage. Students are requesting better compensation for workers because we have the privilege to do so without repercussions, and our eagerness to see change enacted shouldn’t be interpreted as an unwillingness to lend a hand in crafting policy.
Activist and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that though one might not be guilty, in a free society, “everyone is responsible.” I truly believe that, and I sympathize with anyone asked to solve an ugly problem because I, too, feel responsible for its solution. By framing the wage as a moral issue, we don’t seek to distract from dollars and cents, but rather to create an urgency (and a feeling of responsibility) that Sewanee’s culture has lacked for far too long.
“Well, if we raise the wage to $15, what’s to say that we won’t have to raise the wage to $25? Why not $30?”
It’s a good question. $15 is itself a kind of compromise from the outset, as a $5.25 increase in Sewanee’s lowest wages sounds more reasonable than a $10 increase. Personally, I do think that a more appropriate minimum might actually be $17, or even $20. When the national Fight for $15 began in 2012, $15 bought a full $2 more in purchasing power. Comparatively, wages at Sewanee have risen by 60 cents in the past eight years, far slower than the dollar inflated, making the $9.15 earned by a starting custodial worker, say, in 2012 actually worth more than one starting at Sewanee in 2020 making $9.75. I suspect that in a decade or so, if Sewanee chooses to raise its wage to $15, there will be a movement on campus to raise the wage to $20, $25, or, yes, perhaps even $30. It’s a matter of time, inflation, and political will.
“Cutting the salaries of high-paid employees to raise wages among staff is unfair. Income is not the same as wealth. Though their paycheck might appear large, these individuals might be putting kids through college, paying off debts, supporting other family members, or engaging in investments or charitable commitments that require a high salary from Sewanee.”
This argument is among the more nuanced in that it addresses one of the most sensitive methods of paying for a wage increase among Sewanee staff: salary reduction among the University’s highest paid employees. Its first flaw is that it assumes that salary cuts among the highest-paid would be involuntary. At the October 2 faculty meeting where Sewanee’s instructors endorsed the SGA’s $15 wage resolution, some Sewanee faculty were receptive to the idea of voluntarily taking a pay cut to support higher wages among lower-paid staff.
While it could be argued that even voluntary pay cuts might act similarly to a required cut due to peer pressure, I would be surprised if the University published and circulated the names of employees who took a hit for higher wages down the line. Pay cuts need not be required and shameful when they could be anonymous and voluntary.
Secondly, the insistence that Sewanee’s highly paid employees might suffer significantly on a reduced salary ignores the resources and privileges no doubt at their disposal. When I asked Jessica Welch in Sewanee’s HR office about how the University might respond to cost-of-living issues among their lowest-paid employees, she responded that Sewanee “is working 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.”
When universities with multi-million dollar endowments offer their employees financial advice in lieu of appropriate pay, it seems a very convoluted way of calling someone too stupid for a raise. In this case, however, I would say that Sewanee’s administrators are too smart for one. In addition to the vast bevy of resources that come with being a highly-educated University employee, I happily point them to CAPTRUST’s services, evidently offered pro bono, which might help administrators better organize their finances so that childcare workers, dining staff, and custodians can afford food and shelter.