Just under a year after the strife-filled semester that President Rebecca Chopp termed the “spring of our discontent,” a student group is working in conjunction with administrators to try and show that both parties are capable of working together harmoniously.
Members of Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP) and the college’s Human Resources department (HR) are in the process of compiling, assessing and arranging data from a joint survey on faculty and staff regarding the state of childcare at the college. SLAP felt the need to conduct the survey because, according to Ben Wolcott ‘14, the group’s most senior member, the minimum living wages offered to staff simply do not provide enough to raise a family.
The results of the survey will be released next week, said Pamela Prescod-Caesar, the college’s vice president for human resources.
“With childcare as expensive as it is, it seems extremely difficult to find adequate supervision when you’re making $12 an hour,” Wolcott said. “When I applied to Swarthmore, I was told that this is a progressive institution. If the college is going to continue to market itself that way, then the president’s senior staff needs to do a better job meeting the needs of some staff who are struggling to get by just because they decided to have a child. If some staff cannot raise children because they do not make enough money while working at Swarthmore, then the college is not living up to its reputation.”
SLAP describes itself as a student-run worker solidarity group that has between 10 and 12 regular members. They began the childcare campaign after talking to members of staff and faculty about issues on campus, some of whom articulated childcare as a serious need, they said. According to their page on the Swarthmore website, SLAP has previously collaborated with different groups of workers on and off campus in campaigns that advocate for their rights. Several years ago the group conducted a controversial campaign for a “card check” unionization process for future employees of the college’s Town Center West inn and restaurant in which the college would pre-select a union for the employees and agree to bar management from discussing the unionization process while the union campaigned. The college administration rejected the proposal.
Interested in pushing for better child care benefits, SLAP members approached HR and asked them to help revise and distribute the survey so that the college community would view the results as legitimate, according to Wolcott. Additionally, SLAP members thought that a joint survey would lead to productive conversation going forward, they said.
“The purpose of the survey was to gauge how the issues of childcare and adult dependent care impact staff and faculty, and to assess how the college could better support faculty and staff around these issues,” said Michaela Krauser ‘17, a SLAP member.
Prescod-Caesar, the college’s vice president for human resources, wrote in an email that HR “agreed to collaborate with the SLAP students on the survey due to [their] mutual interest in understanding [the] community’s perspectives on child and adult dependent care needs.”
One of SLAP’s central goals for the future is establishing a relationship between the Trinity Cooperative Day Nursery (TCDN), a nondenominational daycare center located in Trinity Church, and the college. SLAP members are hoping that the survey will further talks about forming this relationship, one that was almost made between the two institutions in 2006-2007 before the 2008 recession hit.
Wolcott spoke positively about TCDN and said that a partnership would benefit both institutions.
TCDN seems “eager to partner with the college,” he said. “The college has a real opportunity to work with a community institution that is trying to expand.”
Classics professor Jeremy Lefkowitz, a member of the TCDN board, said that he feels that a relationship between the two institutions would prove fruitful.
Trinity is a “great non-profit and a community organization that is cooperative in its history and its spirit,” he said. “The board is determined to expand some way in the future and to help more families. “Whether we expand in the church space that we currently rent or move to another space is yet to be determined, but we do not want to leave the Swarthmore community.”
While both SLAP and HR agree that general childcare is an important issue, the decision to release the survey to the whole campus community has been a topic of some contention. In an email sent exclusively to faculty and staff, Zenobia Hargust, the manager of human resources wrote, “The survey [would be] for exploratory purposes only, and does not imply any changes to current benefits, or plans for future benefits. Results will be used to provide a baseline of information for current and future discussions about community needs and opinions on this topic.”
Wolcott said that HR justifiably has not wanted to raise expectations of staff and faculty for potential benefits that they do not think are feasible. He does, however, feel that the survey was neutral in nature, he said.
“I don’t think that the survey implies in any way that there will be new benefits, and HR has emphasized its exploratory nature from the very beginning,” he said. “But even before the survey I knew there was a real need on campus based on my conversations with staff and faculty. I’m very excited to be a part of conversations on campus to see how the college can meet the needs of the people who make this place run.”
Neutral or not, Krauser said that the survey was crucial for SLAP’s work because the state of childcare at the college is, in her view, not up to standard.
“The lack of support for staff and faculty around childcare is worrisome and frustrating for a number of reasons,” she said. “At a basic level, this issue adds a key stress to the lives of many staff and faculty. Also, this lack of support impedes the ability of staff and faculty to fulfill their roles at the college, demonstrating that this issue not only impacts the parents on campus, but the community at large.”
While SLAP and HR debated the nature of the language in the survey, both compromised on certain sections in order to achieve their mutual goal: gathering and analyzing the data. Early in the process HR did not want to include a question about an on-campus childcare facility, given the state of the master plan and other financial factors. However, Wolcott felt this was essential.
“Many members of the faculty and staff are interested in an on-campus facility,” Wolcott said. “So we couldn’t work on a survey without including that.”
SLAP also had to compromise on some of the survey’s language. One example of this included a contentious question that pitted the desire for childcare funding against funding for other types of projects. SLAP was opposed to this question because they wanted the survey to focus exclusively on child care benefits and not extend beyond that. Wolcott said he thought this question was somewhat unfair because it implied that SLAP was discussing increasing childcare at the expense of other benefits, and that’s not what their intention was.
“There’s a question that says ‘if you are not interested in participating in additional benefits such as those indicated in the question above please indicate your reasons below’ and one of the options says, ‘I believe that the college’s funds should be used towards other benefits,’’’ he said. “We wanted to switch ‘benefits’ to ‘priorities’ because the staff and faculty we talk to seem much more supportive of raising money from donors or finding money elsewhere in the school budget. Even though we have one of the largest per capita endowments in higher-ed, most of our peer institutions offer better childcare benefits.”
Kimberley Canzoneri ’17, another SLAP member, said that the college, even with the second highest endowment per student among peer institutions, still does not offer real daycare benefits to faculty and staff.
“Despite having lower endowments per student than Swarthmore, most peer institutions offer some sort of day-care benefit, including Parents in a Pinch, found at Wellesley and Bryn Mawr, which guarantees daycare in the case of an emergency,” she said. “A child care subsidy, usually on a sliding scale, can be seen at Pomona, Dartmouth, Colgate, Wesleyan, and there is on-campus child care at Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, Smith, Hamilton, and many other liberal arts colleges.”
Given that situation, Wolcott said he thinks that SLAP has been lucy to collaborate effectively with HR. “Running a campaign is always complicated, and just because we’ve been able to work closely with HR so far doesn’t imply that other campaigns can avoid applying outside pressure,” he said.
As both a board member at Trinity and a professor at the college, Lefkowitz said he chose to take a backseat on the childcare merger as he has a stake on both fronts. However, he did suggest that the SLAP members ought to think as much about people who need child care benefits outside of the college community as they do for the people inside it. Overall, though, Lefkowitz said he was excited to see that undergraduate students motivated to explore possible changes in child care benefits at the college.
“We are naturally excited that this is a topic that’s interesting to students on-campus and are really encouraged that SLAP is taking it on,” he said. “Whether it leads to a new facility in the future or not, this is a really positive campaign for the future.”
In general, Wolcott said he found that the survey process has run smoothly. “While there has been some disagreement between SLAP and HR, the great thing is that we’ve been able to find common ground and soon we’re going to release the results,” he said. “I’ve been so appreciative of the time and effort that they put in.”
Prescod-Caesar said she thinks that HR’s work with SLAP has been mutually respectful.
Other college HR employees were contacted for this article but did not respond before the paper went to press.