By Kathryn Lybarger | Guest commentary
At the heart of America’s recurring problems with poverty, income inequality and race lies a major shift in how our economy is structured.
Since 2009, so called “temporary” jobs (also known as “contingent” or “subcontracted” jobs) have grown at nine times the rate of traditional, career employment.
Career employment offers more than livable wages and benefits — but also the dignity and stability that builds communities. “Temporary” workers are too often relegated to a life of uncertainty, poverty and treated as expendable or second class.
New research tells us that nowhere is this shifting paradigm more acute than right now at the University of California.
As our state’s third largest employer, most would acknowledge that UC has long served a vital public mission beyond academics, health care delivery and research — as a gateway to the middle class for generations of Californians who built careers there.
But today, UC is relinquishing this role — and in doing so, is enabling a growing shadow workforce to be exploited.
The numbers tell part of the story. Between 2009 and 2014, student enrollment at UC has grown by more than 9,000. At the same time, hundreds of new buildings and other facilities have come online. Yet the number of career UC service workers — custodial, grounds keeping, maintenance, transportation, parking and food service employees — has actually decreased.
In their place has come an army of subcontractors — primarily people of color employed by private firms — to do these same jobs for as much as 53 percent less in pay, little to no benefits, and no opportunity for advancement or a voice on the job.
To be clear, UC is not saving 53 percent on labor costs. In fact, when you factor in the overhead and profits that private firms build on top of the poverty wages they pay their workers, UC might not be saving anything at all.
To call UC’s subcontractors “temporary” is also a misnomer. Many are assigned to permanent, full-time workstations for years, or are inherited when UC acquires new buildings and retains the incumbent building management company.
Through subcontracting, UC has turned a blind eye to wide ranging forms of abuse against its lowest paid and most vulnerable workers. These workers face unaccountable bosses, unsafe conditions, being too scared to call in sick out of fear they will lose their jobs, or too afraid to refuse a hazardous assignment — like cleaning an area suspected of Ebola contamination without proper training — for the same reason. Still others find themselves working at world class hospitals for years, yet being unable to afford to take their own children in for vaccinations or preventive care visits. The list goes on.
Many of these hardships are already well known by UC administrators. That’s because research from UC’s own Labor Center at Berkeley has already concluded that temporary workers are twice as likely to live in poverty, and rely on food stamps and Medicaid.
In our research, we’ve uncovered that UC has at least 45 contracts in place with thousands of workers, though UC’s failure to provide a full accounting of all of their contracts suggests the real number could be much higher. It’s also not just limited to service jobs on existing campuses. UC is actively planning massive new expansions across the state, and is actively soliciting bids to do in its health system what it has already done on its campuses.
Californians expect our public institutions — especially those supported with our tax dollars — to honor the dignity and aspirations of those they serve. This includes promoting fair wages and stable career employment. UC’s new president, Janet Napolitano, has acknowledged the problem which is a good first step. But in launching a new system-wide minimum wage that will deny thousands of contract workers equal pay for equal work, she has thus far fallen far short of offering the solution that’s needed.
Ultimately, you can’t profess to be a first class institution when you are condemning thousands of your workers to second class status.
UC can change this dynamic by returning to a model that meets its staffing needs with career workers before rewarding contractors who profit from creating more poverty. The Legislature and governor can also play an important role by enacting Senate Bill 376 (Lara) — an anti-poverty measure that would require UC contractors to pay their UC-assigned employees the same first class wages as career UC service, clerical and patient care workers who are doing the same jobs.
Kathryn Lybarger is a lead gardener at UC Berkeley and the president of AFSCME Local 3299, the University of California’s largest employee union.