After having private conversations with University employees and the labor union, the Young Democratic Socialists organized a town hall with the approval of Service Employees International Union Local 175 for campus workers to share their concerns about low wages, temporary work status, and job uncertainty with the student body.
A Frist Campus Center employee Marie, affectionately nicknamed “Momma Marie” by students, made sure to put the town hall on her agenda.
“I’ve been working here since 1994,” said Marie. “I used to work at another job, but I had to cut it because my health is not too good. For 20 years, I would work at a second job.”
In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Marie said she struggles to make payments with the money she makes each month.
Marie said she pays between 200 and 300 dollars for insurance every month.
“Plus, I have six kids who all went to college,” said Marie. “A big sum from my paycheck goes to pay student loans for my kids.”
Despite the difficulties of essentially living paycheck to paycheck, Marie said she is hopeful that the University will listen to the workers’ concerns. She said the University is like a second home for her.
“I’m not looking to go away because I’ve been here so long that I don’t need to go somewhere else,” Marie said. “I like what I’m doing, I like my job, and I like working with the kids. I have a big family, and when I see you guys, I feel like I’m with my family.”
But even though Marie feels at home on campus, she is also a member of the labor union.
According to an email from acting University spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss, there are 619 benefits-eligible full- and part-time employees who are members of the SEIU bargaining unit, as of May 7.
The SEIU Local 175 is the largest labor organization on campus and is currently presided over by mail carrier and Journey Award for Lifetime Service recipient Thomas Parker.
Parker said the labor union is meant to be “the voice for workers and to champion those very real considerations for the best conditions to work under.”
“[The University] is not a bad employer to work for, per se,” Parker said. “It’s not an ‘us against them’ kind of thing, but rather a process of working together to keep up with the changes and understanding how those changes are relative to the concerns of the staff.”
YDS said in a statement that members are concerned about the proportion of campus workers who work with temporary status. YDS members said the University should hire these workers year-round because they “could be used for other ends, such as training employees or having them clean facilities.”
In response to the topic of temporary campus workers, Hotchkiss said that “numbers vary based on the University’s operational needs.”
As Reunions weekend — which an estimated 25,000 people attend annually — approaches, more and more temporary workers will be on campus. According to University Policy 2.1.1, temporary employees are workers who are “nonexempt in nature.” As a temporary worker “approaches five months of employment, HR will review the employee’s expected continuation of employment with the hiring manager to ensure proper classification.”
In other words, temporary employees are either hired permanently or are laid off at the five-month mark.
But even so, employment uncertainty is not just felt by temporary employees. Academic year employees, who work at the University for ten months of the year, are still left without a salary for two months during the summer.
A dining hall card swiper, who wished to remain anonymous, explained the difficulties of being an AY employee, especially while having a second job in her hometown.
“For what I do, the pay is pretty good,” the card swiper said. “But during the summer, I have to find another job.”
Five of the seven employees interviewed by the The Daily Princetonian noted that they held second jobs at other locations.
“New Jersey is one of the highest cost living states in the country,” Parker said. “We have employees that are living check to check.”
As part of the SEIU Local 175 contract with the University, wage ranges increased “by 1 percent in each of the first three years,” from 2014 to 2016. The labor union is currently in discussion with administration to renegotiate this contract starting this summer.
Hotchkiss declined to comment on the SEIU Local 175 Contract renegotiations.
“The increases that we are getting are not always equitable to the cost of living in the state,” Parker explained.
Additionally, a Frist employee who requested anonymity claimed that evaluations for pay raises are not always fair.
“At the end of the year we have something called an evaluation,” said the Frist employee. “If they love you, you don’t have to work to get a good score. If they don’t, you get a zero.”
Another dining hall employee requesting anonymity explained that managers and administration are not always receptive to the workers’ concerns.
“Some [managers] are really pushy, like they want you to act up,” said the employee. “They need to have more respect for us.”
In response to the town hall, the employee expressed fear that “nothing will happen” and that workers’ conditions on campus would remain the same.
Many University employees declined to comment for this story, appearing uncomfortable speaking out. One worker said that their managers warned them against speaking to reporters.
Facilities Operations acting supervisor and SEIU Local 175 Vice President Richard Wilder did not respond to request for comment.
In the midst of negotiations with administration, Parker offered his gratitude to YDS and other students for bringing attention to the issue of workers’ rights on campus.
“Whenever we have engagements and rallies that we’re invited to, we go,” Parker said. “We definitely appreciate the support that the students give to us, because it lends a voice to the employees.”
In the days leading up to the town hall, University students reported that they feel they don’t know enough about the details of workers’ activities on campus.
Justin Hinson ’21 expressed concern about the lack of discourse among the student body when it comes to the lives of University workers beyond what students immediately observe.
“While it’s great that a lot of students on campus take the time to interact with workers on a daily basis, there isn’t much attention paid to the conditions that workers face,” Hinson said. “We don’t know what their experiences working are like apart from the few times that we see them at dining halls and late meal.”
Braden Flax ’21, a YDS member who will be speaking at the town hall, conveyed his desire that students take the time to learn more about the employees who are integral parts of student life.
“I hope that this event will inspire future discussions about workers’ rights,” Flax said. “I also hope that students remember that this is only a momentary glimpse into what workers experience day-in and day-out.”
The town hall will take place on Wednesday, May 9, at 4 p.m. on the Frist North Lawn.