Harvard strike sparks discussion about compensation, benefits

Seven hundred and fifty Harvard Dining Hall workers, a group unionized under UNITE HERE 26,  entered strike on Oct. 5th. The strike continued for nearly three weeks, resulting in the closure of dining halls and disruption on campus. The union and school reached a working agreement on Tuesday, and the workers will return to work this week. The strike has sparked a nationwide discussion about how some of the wealthiest colleges and universities treat their employees.

Among the first in the list of the union’s demands was an increase in pay. The university says that workers earn an average of $22 an hour, higher than the industry average, but the workers are concerned about their annual salary considering they do not get paid during school breaks. The second demand was in response to Harvard’s proposal for a change in benefits, which would increase the cost of health insurance for the dining hall employees. UNITE demanded Harvard leave the benefits as is, claiming the increased cost of health care would be detrimental to many of the workers.

This protest has sparked a national discussion on the benefits that employees of wealthy universities receive. Harvard has one of the largest endowments in the world, around $35.7 billion, and has lots of financial capital, causing some to concern over its reluctance to pay its workers a livable wage.

Swarthmore tries to put a special focus on the way it treats its workers, because of its Quaker tradition. Historically, the college paid particular attention to the workplace environment of its staff hires.

“Our compensation system must support the hiring and retention of excellent employees, and our culture must challenge them to contribute in meaningful ways to the mission of the college,” according to the HR website.

The college uses a pay grade system where similar positions an campus are grouped together and given a pay range that reflects the market price for these jobs and the value of the positions to the college.

“Positions are evaluated using a number of potential factors such as education, experience, organizational impact, complexity of skills, and supervision. Each of the potential factors adds into a total, and positions that are similar in terms of these factors are grouped into the same pay grades,” according to the HR website.

In 2015, the college hired Mercer, a prominent HR consulting firm, to review the college’s compensation policies.

The study found that about half of the staff’s annual salaries are within 10 percent of the market median, while 43 percent are above and seven percent are below this market median range.

Mercer recommended four changes to improve the compensation program: streamlining the salary structure, modernize the job evaluation approach, finalize and use administrative guidelines, and maintain a regular review process to ensure continued market competitiveness and equality. Increasing consistency with the market was a theme of the recommendation.

An internal investigation done by the Staff Compensation Review Steering Committee in 2001 found that over half of staffers were dissatisfied  with the compensation system, and 44 percent thought the pay was unfair.

For the 2016-2017 academic year, the lowest hourly wage is $12 an hour and the lowest salaried wage is $21,840. The highest hourly wage is $127.36. The highest salaried wage is $277,700.

The college offers four different health-care plans through Independence Blue Cross and Keystone Health Plan East.

“We offer competitive and comprehensive benefits to our employees, including those who hold regular part-time positions. Employees have a choice of plans so that they can choose the one that best meets their needs,” said Michele Mocarsky, Director of Compensation and Benefits.

According to Mocarsky, the most popular plan is Keystone HMO. The plan has an out of pocket minimum of $1,000 for an individual and $2,000 for a family.

In fiscal year 2011, the most recent year currently available to the public, the college spent $13,707,203 on health and dental premiums.

A continued point of contention when it comes to benefits is child-care. Some employees say they have to take on a second job in order to pay for child-care while they work at Swarthmore. In order to remedy the situation the college started a pilot program this year where they give employees who have worked for the college for over a year and earn a household annual income of less than $85,000 a $3,000 taxable stipend. The future of the program is unknown, as it is a pilot program.

This program has been criticized for both dividing the staff and faculty up by class and not being an adequate amount to cover child-care.

Despite the difficulties Swarthmore employees are generally happy with their work environment.

“We have many employees that have served the College for several years and we recognize and celebrate their service annually. The turnover rate for staff is approximately seven percent, which is relatively low in the higher education industry,” said Mocarsky.

Compensation and benefit policies are always changing at the college to better reflect both market expectations and policy changes.

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