UGA Should Pay More Than Lip Service to Workers

United Campus Workers of Georgia members rally for higher wages outside the state Capitol in February 2020. [courtesy of UCWGA]

Throughout the last year, UGA leadership frequently told its community members that “we are in this together.” However, “we” were not in “this” together during the pandemic, nor were we prior to the pandemic. 

The demographic disparities in COVID-19 contraction and death revealed that not everyone was in the same situation, and not everyone was subject to the same risks. Essential workers, who stayed on campus throughout the closures and online learning, were frequently the employees facing the highest risks and making the lowest wages. 

In order to ensure the continuation of academic services, UGA forced its employees to pitch in extra. Workers in UGA’s Facilities Management Division installed plastic shields and hand-sanitizing stations; building services workers performed additional cleaning daily to sanitize classrooms; and adjunct lecturers developed and implemented new educational instructional models. All of this additional labor, which was often conducted in hazardous conditions, went uncompensated by UGA. We are calling on UGA to pay more than lip service to gratitude for workers. It is past time for UGA to increase its minimum wage to $15 per hour and institute annual cost-of-living adjustments.

UGA pays 1,888 full-time workers, or 18% of its full-time workforce, less than $31,200 (the salary equivalent of $15 per hour). According to MIT’s Living Wage calculator, for one adult with no children or other dependents, a living wage is $14.40. This living wage changes drastically with the addition of just one child: One adult needs $28.03 an hour to provide for one child. 

This unnecessary financial reality positions people to make unfair choices. A person should not have to choose between paying for their utility bills or medicine. Due to UGA’s refusal to pay employees what they are worth, many workers have second and even third jobs to make ends meet. UGA and the University System of Georgia are ultimately responsible for this ethical and political failure, and must correct this injustice. “Thank you” does not put food on the table.  

This is not simply an economic issue, but a racial justice and gender equity issue. Not only do people of color and women disproportionately make less money in the same occupations as white men, but they also are segregated into the lowest-paying jobs. Approximately 12% of full-time UGA employees are Black, yet 46% of full-time Black employees make under $31,200 annually. Additionally, only about 2% of full-time employees are Hispanic/Latinx, but 23% of full-time Hispanic/Latinx UGA employees make under $31,200 annually. In contrast, 69% of full-time UGA employees are white, but only 14% make under $31,200 annually. Moreover, the average annual pay for all full-time women employees is $57,363, compared to $75,153 for men, amounting to a $17,790 pay gap for women employees. People of color and women are thus concentrated in lower-paying positions at UGA.

The racial disparities in UGA’s pay reflect the perpetuation of a racial hierarchy. This hierarchy has been maintained over centuries through slavery, segregation and forced displacement and property theft under the guise of urban renewal, such as in the Black neighborhood of Linnentown in the 1960s (for which UGA still refuses to officially acknowledge or participate in redress). In 1785, UGA was built using enslaved labor on stolen Creek lands. In 2021, UGA is still stealing from its workers of color by not fairly compensating them, and UGA’s poverty wages are another form of white supremacy.

UGA must do its part to end this hierarchy, and put its purported commitment to racial and gender inclusivity, diversity and justice into action. The university must correct the oppressive economic disparities it is helping to reproduce. A minimum wage of $15 per hour and cost-of-living adjustments are necessary steps toward economic equity and combating structural racism, which prevents people of color from building generational wealth. 

The cost of living in Athens has continued to rise due to skyrocketing rents—up 33% in the past four years—and increasing property taxes, among other factors. Consequently, without cost-of-living adjustments (which USG employees have not received since 1990), employees are essentially making less money, since their bills increase while wages stagnate. In addition to compensating long-term employees, a cost-of-living adjustment would address wage stagnation and offset wage compression caused by an increased minimum wage.

Universities around the nation, including Clarke University, John Hopkins, the University of Rochester and the University of Kentucky, have all recently committed to increase their minimum wage to $15. UGA would do well to follow suit. 

Moreover, UGA is behind on wages locally; Target now pays $15 per hour, and the Athens-Clarke County Commission voted in June to increase the minimum wage of public employees to $15 per hour. 

As the county’s largest employer, UGA has a particular responsibility to support the wellbeing of the Athens community through dignified wages. It is time for UGA to take steps towards making “we are in this together” a reality. UGA must take steps toward a living wage by increasing its minimum wage to $15 per hour and implementing cost-of-living adjustments. This is not a matter of charity or generosity, but a responsibility. UGA is great because its employees make UGA great. It is time for UGA to act like it.

This column was submitted by the UGA chapter of the United Campus Workers of Georgia.