Harvard’s Ghastly Arithmetic
The committee data indicates that real wages have fallen over the past seven years throughout the service sector. Take the custodians: in real terms, 80 percent of directly-hired custodians earned more than $10 an hour in 1994. Today, 82 percent earn less than $10 an hour. Or the security guards: in real terms, 58 percent of Harvard’s directly-hired security guards earned $14 an hour or more in 1994. In 2001, 58 percent of these guards earn less than $10 an hour, and not a single one makes more than $14.
In addition, over the past 10 years Harvard has increasingly turned to outside contractors for work in the service sector, citing costs and quality as the major reasons. Yet the quality of work done by direct hires, as measured by outside monitors “is comparable to that of contractors,” according to the committee report. So it is just about cutting wages: 50 percent of outsourced service employees earn less than $10 per hour, while 32 percent of directly hired service employees earn less than that. To put that in perspective, consider that the Economic Policy Institute estimates that two adults working full-time need to earn $13.47 an hour each in order to support two children in the greater Boston area. Now, consider that 79 percent of outsourced service employees earn less than $12 per hour while 47 percent of directly hired service employees earn less than that.
And the committee’s data demonstrates not only that service wages are falling, but also that inequality at the University is rising. In the past seven years, the income gap between custodians and professors has increased by 50 percent. Today, in terms of inequality, Harvard eclipses most universities in the area and even its Ivy League peers. This reflects the quantitative and qualitative dissolution of our community.
The reality is that Harvard is paying our custodians, our security guards and our dining hall workers less than they can live on and less than the University can afford to pay. While custodians earn $14.39 per hour at MIT, $14.97 at Boston University and $15.26 at Wellesley, custodians at Harvard are paid $9.65. The wages that Harvard’s service workers earn do not translate into buying store-brand food instead of expensive brands; they translate into eating in soup kitchens, going without meals to feed their children and salvaging other people’s leftovers out of the trash. They work upwards of 80 hours a week not to save up, but to barely scrape by. And at a University world-renowned for its exceptional medical facilities and public health research, Harvard service employees often do not receive health benefits.
The context for these declining service sector conditions must also be noted. State-wide housing prices have increased in the past two decades by 233 percent. All the while, Harvard’s investments have been growing at unprecedented rates, reaching a peak of $19.1 billion last year. Can Harvard afford a living wage? Consult the data: Harvard’s fiscal income for the year 2000 was $2.02 billion. Its expenses that year totaled $1.90 billion. When confronted with an annual operating surplus of $120 million, arguments about Harvard’s financial incapacity to pay a living wage ring hollow.
Furthermore, the committee’s data shows that an increasing number of custodians at Harvard are Latino or African-American, and they are increasingly likely to be recent immigrants. In other words, as Harvard has slashed wages, it has exploited those populations that have historically borne the brunt of workplace discrimination and, in the case of recent immigrants, have the least access to legal recourse. Harvard’s poverty wage policy smacks of institutional racism, because people of color are disproportionately affected by Harvard’s poverty wages, while being disproportionately under-represented in the faculty and in the administration. By keeping these workers at a level of destitution where even surviving is a battle, Harvard is perpetuating a cycle of poverty and racism.
There is no disputing these facts. Visit www.hcecp.harvard.edu and read the numbers for yourself. Now it is time for all members of the Harvard community to speak up: e-mail email@example.com and tell them that you want your House door guarded by someone who can afford to sleep more than four hours per night. Tell them that 16 percent is too much for custodial wages to fall in seven years. Tell them that it matters whether your dishwasher has a home to go to at night. Tell them that workers should not be intimidated if they want to unionize. Tell them to give that custodian health insurance so she can afford eyeglasses for her second-grader. Tell them the facts are clear: Harvard owes its workers a living wage.
Molly E. McOwen ’02 is an environmental science and public policy concentrator in Dudley House. Jessica A.R. Fragola ’04 is a biology concentrator in Cabot House. They are members of the Harvard living wage campaign.