This Labor Day, as people around the country were supposedly recognizing the hard work of working-class Americans, Amherst College showed its commitment to its workers by gifting them the great honor of more work. This, while pandemic unemployment benefits were cut to over 8 million Americans and the college remained as wary as ever to the risks of the Delta variant, a true sign of Amherst’s inimitable commitment to labor rights.
Unfortunately, in spite of its many kindnesses, the college has suffered a recent labor shortage — a fact it has repeatedly pointed to in order to justify its many new “gifts” to its staff. According to administrators, they’ve even gone above and beyond by offering a generous sign-on bonus of $750 for entry-level positions; in other words, their hands are tied. Something they’ve been reluctant to try, however, is maintaining staff wages at a fair rate.
Earlier in the pandemic the administration implemented a pandemic wage increase, making $20/hour the new base pay for staff at the college. This made the college’s pay more competitive at a local level, where many workers can currently earn hourly wages higher than those offered by the college (see UMass Amherst Dining’s average wage of $17-27/hour), and helped staff deal with the increased burdens of life during the pandemic.
But in this semester, the college actually chose to cut staff pay from these early pandemic levels. This has led to an increase in discontent among the staff and could certainly be blamed for at least some of the difficulty the college faces in hiring new employees. If the college wants to make the choice that is both ethical and pragmatic, the answer is clear: put staff wages back where they were.
As a starting point, we call on the college to reinstate the $20/hour base pay of the early pandemic — our workers deserve as much for all the effort they put into making our campus experience great. Beyond the pay increase, the college should enter into more serious deliberation with staff over their needs, both material and economic, without the threat of reprisals that currently prevents staff action.
Staff are essential members of the Amherst College community, but they aren’t treated that way. They take care of all of the minutiae of day-to-day life, from small things like unclogging the shower drains to huge tasks like prepping meals for almost 2,000 students several times a day, that have made life on campus bearable over the course of the pandemic. But due to added administrative pressures and reduced compensation, Amherst’s staff morale is the lowest it's been since the start of the pandemic, as The Student has recently reported.
Communication between staff and their supervisors is minimal, with staff reporting last-minute work schedule changes upending their day-to-day lives as well as unexpected shifts in responsibilities — often the addition of new responsibilities with no commensurate increase in pay. One third of staff are treated as ‘casual employees,’ receiving reduced pay and benefits often for the same labor. Overtime, which was once voluntary, has now become more frequently mandatory — even on Labor Day itself. And staff are often afraid of pushing the administration for more benefits out of fears of retribution or job loss.
Representatives of the college acknowledged that the recent ordeals of staff have certainly been unideal, but have argued that the nationwide labor shortage has tied their hands. They touted sign-on bonuses and above-minimum-wage labor as incentives for staff to join, arguing that the college offered competitive benefits as other jobs in the Pioneer Valley but workers simply weren’t interested.
In part, this is another manifestation of the problematic go-it-alone attitude of the administration, ignoring the benefits of consultation with other community members in order to improve policy. However, it also represents a more callous disregard for the needs of workers, especially during the pandemic.
At a bare minimum, the college needs to improve its communication with staff, keeping them in the loop on campus changes and avoiding the last-minute switch ups that have devastated morale over the pandemic. But, equally crucial, the college needs to listen to its staff in order to solve its own understaffing problem and make working at Amherst a desirable experience. After all, staff are members of our community, too; they should want to be here the same as the rest of us do — but they can’t unless we make that a possibility.
We all want this college to be great, the best even — sorry, Williams — but we can’t achieve that without investing in the entirety of our community. Administration, faculty, students and staff all contribute to making this college what it is, and staff deserve to have their efforts recognized.
Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 11; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 2).