By Kathryn Lybarger
UC students have increased, but fewer service workers work directly for UC.
There is a difference between acknowledging that a problem exists and solving the problem. Case in point is the University of California’s decision last month to enact a minimum wage that will apply to “many thousands” of its contract workers — custodians, landscapers, food service workers and others who do the same jobs as career UC workers, but are instead employed by private firms who profit from paying poverty wages with no benefits.
UC President Janet Napolitano deserves credit for recognizing the poverty and inequality created by UC’s contracting practices. For years, UC denied that there was a problem with its growing reliance on contract workers, or shortcomings with their treatment. It was only after numerous contractors came to UC regents’ meetings to tell their stories — of abject poverty, food and medical insecurity, unsafe working conditions, wage theft, and worse — that Napolitano was compelled to act.
In doing so, however, Napolitano revealed a clear misunderstanding of the role that UC is actively playing in growing the ranks of California’s working poor.
Between 2009 and 2014, as the number of UC students has increased by 9,000 and hundreds of new UC facilities have come online, the number of UC service workers decreased. Contracting out at UC is not about “temporary” staffing needs, nor the acquisition of “special expertise” not already available in-house. Many low-wage UC contract workers put in 40 hour weeks, and spend years — if not decades — working alongside career UC workers who do the same jobs. Yet the contract workers earn as much as 53 percent lower wages, have few to no benefits, and are in constant fear of losing their jobs for calling in sick or refusing to work overtime without pay.
Nothing in Napolitano’s “minimum wage” decision changes this dynamic. Instead, her proposal perpetuates it.
Napolitano herself has said that UC’s minimum wage will not “supplant or minimize” UC’s existing contracting policies. Private contract firms will still make as much as $10 an hour or more in profit off the labor of workers being denied the same wages as UC workers doing the same jobs. UC has sent its contract workers a clear message: We see you as second class, and we’re going to keep it that way.
UC could choose to send a different message by supporting SB376, legislation that would guarantee the employees of UC contractors equal pay as career employees doing the same work. SB376 is rooted in the basic premise that public institutions shouldn’t reward private firms that profit from creating more poverty — particularly among communities of color.
UC says the cost of its new minimum wage for direct employees is $14 million — a figure it claimed was “not a lot of money.” “Equal pay for equal work” can’t possibly be more prohibitive than having “many thousands” of UC contract workers reliant on Medi-Cal and food stamps.
Alternatively, UC could cut out the middleman altogether and insource more contract workers as career employees — something that is hardly without precedent. As one former UC contractor noted, after almost two years as a full-time employee for a UC contractor, the only things that changed after coming in-house were wages, benefits and the uniform — everything else was the same.
Unfortunately, Napolitano’s minimum wage proposal simply fails to bridge the gap between recognizing the problem and solving it.
Kathryn Lybarger is a lead gardener at UC Berkeley and the president of AFSCME Local 3299, the University of California’s largest employee union.
Last modified: August 18, 2015