As wages stagnate, more and more people are struggling to make ends meet. They are parents, siblings, and friends, and they are living lives increasingly characterized by discontent and fear — fear over whether they can provide their children with food and a future to look forward to.
As the largest private employer in Philadelphia, Penn is responsible for the wages of some 31,000 people.
While the solutions to solve this problem on a nationwide scale are complex, there is plenty that major institutions such as companies and colleges can do to help.
Among educational institutions, Harvard University is leading the way in addressing this problem in its own backyard. In an attempt to bypass its own wage floors, Harvard outsourced a large percentage of its service labor to outside contractors. This policy stood in place until 2001, when a three-week long protest by students from the Harvard Living Wage Campaign prompted then-Harvard President Neil Rudenstine to ask a committee for recommendations on how to improve workers’ situations.
As a result, according to The New York Times, “service workers on the payroll of an outside contractor earn the same pay and benefits they would get as direct university employees.”
The resulting policy has affected some thousand workers at Harvard, catapulting into the middle class employees from the lowest economic rungs who previously earned the Cambridge, Mass. minimum wage.
Martha Bonilla, who was profiled in the Times, is one of them. She works in a kitchen for Restaurant Associates in Cambridge, a food-service company that is contracted by Harvard Business School. She earns more than $25 an hour, enabling her family and her to live in the middle-class neighborhood of West Roxbury, Mass., vacation in Florida, and pay for her daughter’s college tuition and fees.
The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is an abomination. Many states and cities have responded by adopting their own minimum wage standards, usually ranging from $10 an hour to about $15 an hour. But we should not be under the illusion that anyone can raise a family on a $10 hourly wage. Even an unmarried adult with no dependents would be hard pressed to live a comfortable life on, say, $12 an hour. Add children to the equation and a grim reality emerges.
Even though it would be prudent economics to provide significant wage hikes — increased wages lead to increased tax revenues and higher consumer spending, which in turn boost economic growth — those are hardly the strongest reasons to implement such a policy at Penn. Rather, we ought to do this for a different reason: It is the morally right thing to do.
If economic trends and models are any indication, the economic growth that started almost a decade ago will continue, yet real wages for hard-working Americans will barely budge. That is because the economic growth is mostly reaching the wealthiest segments of American society, not the bottom 50 percent of Americans who need it the most.
Martha Bonilla is, thanks to Harvard’s wage policies, living the American dream, free from the fears that plague millions of hard-working Americans today. Penn ought to show that it, too, is ready to lead on this front.
Adopting a similar policy for the thousands of Penn workers — both direct employees as well as those contracted from outside companies — would empower our community. Would this cost Penn millions of dollars each year? Absolutely.
But, it would be disgraceful for an Ivy League university with a multi-billion-dollar operating budget not to take the moral reins and pay all Penn employees a minimum wage between $20-$25 an hour.
This might prompt more educational institutions to follow suit and adopt similar policies. What better way to start a nationwide trend among wealthy institutions and companies than to show that you care about your employees, and to take a moral stand against the shameful inequality we see in this country?
Everyone on this campus — from dining hall workers, to professors and administrators — contributes to our university’s success in their own way. It’s time for Penn to recognize that.
MICHAEL A. KESHMIRI is a College senior from Stockholm, Sweden studying political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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