Underpaid and overlooked: Staff face uphill climb toward compensation

By Albert Chang-Yoo

The 424 full-time staff members employed at the University of Puget Sound are the lifeblood of the campus. Anytime you go to the bathroom, eat a meal, or connect to the Wi-Fi, it’s probably because of a staff member’s work. Yet, for the past decade, staff have experienced sparse increases in compensation, causing financial turbulence, stress, and high turnover rates.

Recently, the Staff Senate Compensation Committee renewed their request for a 10% increase in the salary pool (the accumulation of all staff salaries). For the past six years, staff have seen minimal salary increases, ranging from 0% to 3%. In contrast, the Consumer Price Index (an indicator of inflation) has increased anywhere from 1.5% to 4.5%. This means that as of 2023, staff compensation is about 18.37% less than economic averages. According to a Staff Senate report from December 2021, “about half of staff could qualify for some form of state assistance for food, housing, or medical insurance if they are a single earner household with children.”

Among the staff members I talked to, nobody believes a 10% increase will actually happen. Even with a 10% increase, staff will still be underpaid. According to a longtime University staff member who wishes to remain anonymous, staff wages “are not keeping up with the cost of living. That effectively means everybody’s taking a pay cut every year that they stay here. And there’s really no hope of ever catching up to that or even, you know, getting money to try to address those issues until the university is back to financial viability. So, morale is low.”

President Crawford also recently announced two major updates regarding staff members. First, an early retirement incentive was offered to all eligible staff members. Secondly, staff members were offered the option of reducing their work hours with a corresponding reduction in pay. Both are attempts to reduce the number of full-time staff members. It’s a step that parallels the faculty incentives introduced in the fall semester — with one caveat. Staff were offered six months of pay to retire early, while Faculty were offered one year.

Staff members cannot achieve tenure, unlike faculty, and are at-will employees. This means they can be fired both without warning and without a stated reason. It also means that most staff members are hesitant to speak out against the University.

Low wages have mired the University’s ability to retain talent. In 2022, turnover was around 25%, as Tacoma’s increasing housing market priced out University staff. In an anonymous October 2021 feedback survey, staff members described the situation as “exhausting” and “like treading water in rough seas with no land in sight and getting a pool noodle tossed from a helicopter while they fly away.”

It’s not like the staff want to leave the University. “I don’t know one person that was happy about leaving for another job,” Nan Martin-Clapp, Staff Senate Treasurer and Student Employment Coordinator, said. “You have folks in dining and loved what they were doing,” she explained, “But the dollar wage was – they could not not take the opportunity elsewhere to get paid a higher wage.” All the staff I interviewed expressed genuine love for the campus community

Martin-Clapp arrived at the University 16 years ago. She said that previous staff members told her that pay raises often were consistently higher than the 2% increases that we are receiving now, but that changed after the 2008 financial crisis: “It was in ‘08 when I remember our increases flattening out.” This follows a trend of colleges and universities struggling, first from the financial crisis and now from the pandemic.

Compensation is a crucial matter for staff who remain. Digital Services Librarian, Ben Tucker has worked at the University for 11 years. “Everybody who’s still working here is absolutely dedicated to this university and to our students, it’s really important. That’s why we’re here,” he stated. “However, we also need to make sure that we take care of ourselves and our families. And that means advocating for ourselves in terms of compensation, advocating for reasonable conditions in terms of our workload, and other related issues,” Tucker elaborated.

Theresa Williams-Chow is the Administrative Support Coordinator for several language studies. According to Williams-Chow, the challenge is fairly distributing pay increases amongst the staff salary pool. “So, there’s a lot more people who work here who make very little and very few people who are here who make a lot,” Williams explained. A 2% increase is distributed to the entire salary pool, not the individual staff member. The problem is, as Williams put it, “when you make $18/hour – it’s not a lot of money. 36 cents does not make you want to stay at a job versus if you’re making $200,000 a year… we would actually really like everybody who’s at the bottom of the salary scale to have more of a bump.”

The University is still facing financial challenges as a whole, reflecting a rough economy and national education numbers. Tucker acknowledges the reality. Yet, he also offered a counter: “I will continue to argue that we should be investing more in our staff and faculty – to retain and hire the best folks we can, to reward our staff who are still here, and to make the most of student experience.”