Bad Jobs at Harvard

Everyone at Harvard understands that the bottom line is a good job. Harvard students' engagement in their classes reflects their recognition that learning the subject matter will pay off in their future jobs. Administrators' recognition of the psychic, social and economic necessity of good jobs can be seen in the competitive salaries and benefits Harvard offers many permanent employees. Harvard also recognizes in faculty salaries the high cost of living in Cambridge and its environs.

Thus, although undergraduates may come here for a Harvard education and faculty may come here to work with the best scholars in their field, Harvard administrators never lose sight of the fact that good jobs--or the prospect of such jobs--are a sine qua non for both groups.

For some Harvard workers, however, Harvard is blind to the necessity of secure, adequately compensated employment and standard employment benefits. According to information assembled by Harvard's living wage campaign, between 1,000 and 2,000 of the workers who ensure Harvard's daily functioning do not receive a living wage.


A living wage is the hourly wage workers need to live decently, given adequate benefits and taking into account the local cost of living. Like many American cities, Cambridge has established a living wage for the workers whose pay the city sets and for employees of the firms with which the city has major contracts. The living hourly wage is $10.25.

Three groups of Harvard workers do not earn the Cambridge living wage in addition to benefits. One is a small group of regular Harvard employees. The second comprises workers employed by Harvard on a part-time or temporary basis. Their marginal status means that in addition to their low pay, they are ineligible for union membership, typically do not receive benefits, lack job security and work fewer hours than they prefer. The third group includes subcontracted workers whose de jure employer is a firm with whom Harvard holds a contract but whose de facto employer is Harvard. Members of the third group, who work in custodial, dining, parking and security jobs at Harvard, earn as little as $7 per hour, according to the living wage campaign.

There is nothing new about bad jobs in America. Until the end of the Great Depression, most jobs were low-paid and insecure. Among the working classes, pensions and health insurance were virtually unheard of. But labor laws passed during the 1930s dramatically increased the number of workers whose jobs provided a living wage, employment security and benefits. Workers' right to bargain collectively further restricted employers' ability to exploit them. Although large numbers of workers remained in bad jobs, the trend was toward expanding workers' access to decent jobs.

This trend ground to a halt in the 1980s, as nonstandard employment relationships such as part-time work, temporary work and contract work proliferated. Employers pursue these arrangements primarily because they cut labor costs and permit the circumvention of state and federal labor laws. Of course, reducing labor costs with the same number of workers necessarily means lower wages. In a recently published study, Arne Kalleberg, Ken Hudson and I show that nonstandard employment arrangements (particularly temporary work and contract work) reduce workers' pay, access to benefits and job security.

No employer should relegate workers to bad jobs. For-profit organizations plead market competition to justify their increasing use of temporary and contract workers. Regardless of the dubious validity of this rationale, profits are not a consideration for non-profit organizations--particularly educational institutions. Given Harvard's long history and unparalleled wealth, survival is hardly an issue. Why then should Harvard emulate for-profits in its treatment of non-professional staff? Any growth of non-standard workers at Harvard and our University's unwillingness to commit to a living wage and standard benefits for all its de jure and de facto employees should be a matter of concern for the entire University community.

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