University raises starting wage for staff from $9.75 to $12

Amelia Leaphart

On January 1, the University raised the starting hourly wage from $9.75 to $12.  Provost Nancy Berner sent an email to faculty and staff announcing this 20 percent increase on January 5, and compensation letters were sent the following week adjusting current employees’ salaries to account for this.  A $750,000 annual investment for the University, this change comes after years of discussions at the administrative level as well as recent pushes from students to raise the University’s minimum wage. The administration did not announce this change to the student body. 

Jessica Welch, director of HR development, after initially agreeing to an interview declined to comment after correspondence with University Treasurer Doug Williams. 

Both the announcement from Acting Vice-Chancellor Nancy Berner and Williams state there are discussions regarding further increases to the starting wage. According to Williams, competing needs include faculty compensation, student success, and building maintenance. University wage changes typically occur July 1, however the urgency of staff shortages resulted in pushing up the decision. 

Caroline Thompson, interim assistant director of dining, served Sewanee Dining since 2017 in a variety of positions. In most recent memory, the last push to raise the minimum wage to $15 occurred in Advent 2020, with a series of Purple opinion pieces led by former opinions editor Max Saltman (C ’21). 

“I’ve been pretty vocal,” Thompson said, “I think everyone always knew it needed to happen, including the administration. It was just figuring out how to do it.”

Momentum built surrounding COVID with increasing national attention to essential workers as well as internal staffing challenges. According to Thompson, COVID protocols required an increase in staff, and now Sewanee Dining still operates below pre-pandemic levels. 

“For a lot of staff members, it’s life-changing. Part of me is hesitant because this all happened now with costs going up. I worry whether it makes a difference still, but I think it does,” Thompson said. 

Williams, a member of the administrative team that evaluates wages and makes recommendations, says the decision was in part to make the University a competitive employer in the area as well as to align with the University’s commitment to equity. 

“They’ve been working on a plan for a really long time,” Thompson said, “There’ve been committees and lots of talking, I didn’t know it was really going to happen. Operationally, our staffing shortage got so low that something had to change.” 

“I’m grateful, I hope it’s a starting place. There are many other groups, like athletic coaches, that are not compensated for their worth…Overall, I’m glad that it happened, and it’s helping us operate better. I wish it was more, but understand it needs to be incremental.”