As protesters gathered across the country Tuesday to advocate for workers’ rights, members of the University’s Living Wage Campaign rallied on the steps of the Rotunda to demand the University gather and publish information about its contracted employees.
“Today, May Day, is for working people everywhere, including the invisible ones,” said Tim Bruno, protester and Graduate Arts & Sciences student.
The campaign, which garnered national attention for its 13-day hunger strike in February, promised to keep pressuring University administrators to focus not just on the school’s lowest paid direct employees, but also on contracted employees. Contracted employees perform many of the same tasks as direct University employees but are employed by a labor contractor rather than the University.
In a Feb. 29 email addressed to the University community after the campaign’s hunger strike, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Michael Strine promised to “begin to gather information on key contracting and trends … regarding our reliance on contracted partners that support and advance our mission. We hold these partners accountable to federal and state mandates for equal employment opportunity and other fair labor standards.”
In an attempt to hold Strine to this statement, the campaign delivered a letter to University administration in Madison Hall containing two demands they want met by March 1 next year.
The letter asks the University to “obtain information on employee compensation, including wages and benefit information for all contracted workers on grounds” and cross-reference this data with information on “the race and gender of contract employees.” The campaign also wants all of this information to be published online.
University spokesperson Carol Wood confirmed in an email the University had received the letter but questioned whether the campaign’s demands actually reflect Strine’s February statement or take into consideration strides made by the University toward improving compensation for low-wage employees.
“[The demands] seem to mischaracterize [Strine’s statement] quite a bit,” Wood said. “President Sullivan has said on more than one occasion that she is personally committed to improving the conditions of our lowest-paid employees, and that she will continue to work toward that end through appropriate measures.”
The campaign said the University does not have any information about its contracted employees.
“Part of the problem is that the University does not keep track of even the number of contract employees [here],” Bruno said. Because of this, “there’s no way of knowing what [these workers] are being paid. There’s no way of knowing that employers like Aramark are even following labor practice standards,” he said.
Aramark is one of the University’s major labor contractors and one of Charlottesville’s biggest employers, according to a campaign press release.
Currently, direct University employees are paid $10.65 an hour plus benefits, which is still short of the campaign’s goal of a $13 an hour minimum wage.
But Aramark is only required to pay its employees the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, Bruno said.
Director of University Dining Brent Beringer said University Dining adheres to the University’s minimum wage.
“[University] Dining employees receive competitive wages and comprehensive benefits, including medical insurance, dental insurance, life insurance, short-term disability insurance, sick time, vacation pay and a meal for every shift worked,” Beringer said.
Aramark Director of Communications Karen Cutler said the company offers a wage which is competitive with the national food industry.
“To accomplish this, we use the experience of our human resources experts together with wage studies that analyze current wages by market sector, as well as intra-sector surveys that compare wages within the sector of food and other services,” she said.
Bruno said the University can do more to guarantee a living wage for contracted employees.
“The University doesn’t want to take responsibility for underpaid and overexploited contracted labor,” Bruno said. “So the University acts like those employees don’t exist.”
In her Feb. 17 letter to the University community, however, President Sullivan said “the University does not have the authority to stipulate a living wage requirement that must be paid by private contractors and vendors,” citing then Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell’s 2006 opinion on the issue.
The campaign has disputed the University’s position, claiming the administration does have the authority to ask contractors for information on the wages and benefits of contracted employees.
Wood said McDonnell’s opinion also applies to any information or data about wages and benefits, so the University cannot legally ask for this information from contractors.
Charlottesville lawyer and resident Jeff Fogel attended Tuesday’s rally and was involved in drafting a memo challenging McDonnell’s 2006 opinion.
“It’s a basic moral issue that people are entitled to a wage that let’s them live decently,” Fogel said. “When we’re supporting the people who work here, we’re supporting our neighbors,” he added.
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