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Students turn class project into living wage movement for hourly workers

Brandon Burkey

Contributing Writer

Will Turner ’15, along with seven other students on campus, is attempting to shed some light on the issue of living wages at The College of Wooster. The combined efforts of Turner and other students and faculty have brought this issue into the fray of the ongoing budget discussions.

Turner defines a living wage as “a wage that allows individuals to cover basic living expenses independent of government and charitable support while maintaining a healthy lifestyle and being a functioning part of society.” According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator, the wage for Wayne County, Ohio, is approximately $15 per hour.

The group was originally formed through a project for Political Rhetoric taught by Communications Professor Denise Bostdorff. The project culminated in a public presentation led by the students on the first floor of Lowry Center. The students are extending their efforts past the presentation on their own and not for course credit.

“Many students in the course were especially passionate about working on the living wage issue for two reasons,” said Bostdorff. “First, they have been in minimum wage jobs themselves and know what that’s like. In addition, students care deeply about the staff members with whom they interact on a daily basis.”

Turner’s passion for the living wage issue began with his enrollment in Professor of Religious Studies Charles Kammer’s Just Work course. “Professor Kammer was a big informational resource,” said Turner.

Kammer has been one of the College’s biggest proponents for the living wage for a number of years. “The living wage is secondarily an economic issue,” said Kammer. “Primarily, it’s a moral issue. Coming back to the college model, by not [paying employees a living wage], we are violating our mission statement.”

A common rebuttal to the living wage campaign within the context of the College is that many hourly employees are only providing a supplemental income.

Kammer said, “Every job should provide a living wage. In regards to supplemental income, a variety of things can happen -— divorce, death. What happens then?”

Another common counterpoint to this campaign concerns the benefits the College offers to its employees, such as insurance coverage and retirement. Many opponents of the living wage argue that the financial benefits of these programs make up for wages that might otherwise be considered low.

Phil Olsen, a grounds department employee who supports a family of four, agrees that the benefits are a definite perk. “I took an hourly cut to come here. At my previous job I was paying a lot out of pocket for extra things,” said Olsen. “Also, the College offers a lot of stability. It’s definitely a lot more family friendly than the alternatives.”

The current status for pay raises at the College is at two percent a year. Kammer was quick to point out that this means a raise of up to $8,000 dollars a year for the highest paid employees and $360 dollars a year, or $7 dollars a week, for the lowest paid employees.

“Overall, the employees don’t feel like they get paid enough,” said an hourly food service worker who wishes to remain unnamed. “In five years time, an employee hasn’t been given enough raises to catch up.”

She continued on to say: “Many of us here are single moms. Many of us have to turn to welfare and other forms of government assistance. I don’t even make enough to pay for childcare, let alone the other things.”

The Financial Advisory Committee is currently attempting to define the living wage within a budgetary context, although it is a complicated process. “One of the complications of the living wage question is that there are many different ways to define and calculate a living wage,” explained Professor Susan Lehman, chair of the Finance Committee. “Values vary by more than $12 per hour. That is — some reasonable values are under $10 per hour for the Wooster area; making different assumptions about family structure can give you values over $20 per hour.”

The living wage campaign is currently being considered by the faculty at large and the administration on just how it would impact the College community. A TEDx talk presented on Saturday, Nov. 8 by Turner and Maddy Baker ’16 will also address the living wage.

However, Lehman said the fate of the campaign would be heavily dependent on campus climate and involvement in the coming months. “I think the future of the living wage on campus depends on whether it is a priority for the campus community as we all go through a process of evaluating overall budget priorities this year,” said Lehman.

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