University Workers Seek Higher Wages

Aug 12, 2015

The 5-thousand classified workers at Oregon's 7 public universities are negotiating with administration for a new contract. The old one expired in June. These are the people who clean classrooms, shelve books and cook for students.

SEIU workers rally on the UO Campus in July.
Credit Rachael McDonald

"My name is Shawna Schultz, and I am a food service worker."

Schults works in Carson Hall, one of the U of O dorm buildings.

Schultz: "I supervise students. Teach them the rules of the kitchen and we service our guests and also maintain a very safe environment for our students."

Schults has been working here for 4 years-- about 30 hours a week. She loves her job. And she loves working with students.
Schultz: "Everybody will go in the dish room. They'll mop the floor. And we do it together and they're not complaining and they're not saying, chewing their gum, I got to get out of here. There's no way I'm going to clean those dishes. That just does not happen here. And so it shows that they really have a focus on their education and being part of a team."
Schultz needs this job. She's a single mom. Her son has autism. It's hard to find good child care.

Schultz: "He's not as independent as another child, as another 9-year old boy would be at his same age."

Schultz's schedule is different each week which can make it challenging. She is barely able to make ends meet with her current pay.
Schultz: "If I don't work a certain amount of hours then it is a struggle and I am going to have to apply for food assistance."
Schultz says it would be a dream come true if the minimum wage went up to 15-dollars an hour. She makes a little more than the state minimum. She's concerned about the possibility that the new contract might include a boost in the cost of health care coverage.
Schultz: "It would be excruciating because just as it is it seems to be a good balance with the health care. I'm able to kind of say it's expensive, I could forgo it and have a little more money in my pocket but hey wait, let's keep it because it's just right there on the cusp of too much with the co-pays."
All seven of Oregon's public universities are in contract talks with their classified workers, represented by the Service Employees International Union, local 503. The union wants cost of living raises for its workers. Di Saunders is a spokeswoman for Oregon Public University management.

Saunders: "We very much understand and value the incredible impact that the classified staff have on our institutions. We know that we can't operate our institutions properly without them."

But, Saunders says, universities don't get as much money from the state as they used to.

Saunders: "Any time that we look at salary increases for any of our employees we do have to balance what does this mean to students and student tuition against, how can we be as fair and equitable to all of our employees whether they're faculty or staff."

Union members say they've weathered the recession along with the universities, getting by without cost of living raises. And it's time, now that the state has given higher ed funding a boost, to pass that on to workers. But Saunders says that money needs to go to student programs.

Contract talks are underway this week. Depending on the outcome, the union may talk strike. A vote won't come until September.