Campus & Community

Committee calls for expanded training, benefits

6 min read

A committee of faculty and administrators studying workforce issues at Harvard has recommended several groundbreaking initiatives. Central to these recommendations is a greatly expanded free, on-site workplace education program for the university’s lowest-paid employees, including those working for contractors.

In addition the committee recommended a mix of health and other benefits and, for the first time, the establishment of guidelines on the use of service contractors.

The recommendations, which come after a year’s study of entry-level and service workers, casual employees, part-time workers, and the employees of contractors, present various groups of workers with different benefits tailored to that group’s needs.

The education initiative, called The Bridge Program, would be expanded from its current 38 participants to as many as 500 annually, depending on need, and include Harvard-based, entry-level employees of service contractors. It would cost the University about $1.4 million annually, or $2,800 per eligible worker.

The committee recommended that Harvard, which provides full benefits coverage for 12,458 “regular” employees who work more than half-time, expand health coverage to include service workers who work 16 hours per week or more.

The committee recommended for the first time establishing guidelines that govern service contracting as well as requiring certificates of disclosure and of compliance from service contractors. Those guidelines would require that Harvard managers hire only service contractors who provide, among other things, part-time employees who work at least 16 hours a week with health benefits equal to that given their full time employees.

These wide-ranging recommendations were presented yesterday by the Ad Hoc Committee on Employment Policies to Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine, who praised the “seriousness and rigor” with which the Committee conducted its deliberations.

“These recommendations are very far-reaching, and constitute a major new investment in Harvard’s employment programs,” Rudenstine said.

Few employers have addressed the pressing national issue of adult literacy and education in basic skills with programs as large in scope as the Committee’s recommended program, according to John Comings, director of the National Center for the Study of Adult Literacy and Learning, a senior research associate at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and one of the designers of the expanded worker education program.

“Businesses have spent a lot of money to train staff but very few have trained this population. This population has the greatest need and generally has the least resources with which to acquire skills,” Comings said. “I’m actually quite impressed.”

The education program was also praised by the Service Employees International Union Local 254, which represents custodians at the University. Local 254 called it “a welcome supplement” to an education program the local makes available to its members.

The Committee was appointed by Rudenstine last spring amid rising awareness of shifting labor patterns and growing concern about the University’s lowest-paid workers expressed by University labor unions, Cambridge City Council members, and student activists who have been pushing Harvard to adopt a $10 per hour “living wage.”

Rudenstine said that student concern was an important factor leading to the creation of the Committee and, though the Committee didn’t recommend a set dollar figure, the program it recommends does address the “important questions of economic justice” and “the dignity and well-being of all workers on this campus.”

“Although the Committee has declined to recommend that the University adopt a specific wage rate as a floor for all workers, the Committee specifically endorsed the premise of the Living Wage Campaign – that workers on the Harvard campus should be paid fair and competitive compensation for the jobs they perform and should be treated with dignity as part of the larger University community,” Rudenstine said.

Although the Committee was unanimous in its basic approach, representatives from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Medical School wrote a dissent on a single issue – the inclusion in the contractor guidelines of a requirement governing health benefits for employees assigned to Harvard’s campus. The dissent said, among other things, that this requirement would interfere with the relationship between the contracted employees and their employer and could result in increased costs that would take resources from other priorities, such as student financial aid.

“The Committee’s strongly-felt desire to be of assistance to a deserving sector of the workforce leads it to an unsound conclusion,” said HMS’ Executive Dean for Administration Paul Levy and FAS’ Adminstrative Dean Nancy Maull in the dissent.

Among the Committee’s findings was that 194 out of Harvard’s 12,458 regular workers earned less than $10 per hour in total compensation, including benefits. In addition, the Committee also found that there were many opportunities for upward mobility at Harvard. On any given day, Harvard has 600 to 800 job openings in a wide variety of fields; approximately half are for service/trades employees or for clerical/technical workers.

With respect to the issue of a specific living wage figure, the Committee found that focusing on wage levels does not take sufficiently into account the importance of benefits as a form of compensation, omits the consideration of the long-term employment prospects of entry-level workers, and would prompt a ripple effect of wage increases in many adjacent job classifications whether or not those increases would otherwise be appropriate.

“We did consider that issue quite carefully, but decided that relying on a single figure, whether $10 per hour or any other would be too narrow,” said Albert J. Weatherhead Jr. Professor of Business Administration D. Quinn Mills, who chaired the committee.

During the same period that the committee deliberated the issue of wages and benefits, five union contracts were successfully renegotiated by Harvard’s administrative staff.

The Committee’s full range of recommendations would create a suite of new benefits and opportunities for hundreds of casual workers, require some employers who wish to contract with the university to expand their health benefits, and extend health and other benefits to unionized employees who work 16 to 20 hours per week at Harvard and who currently receive only benefits mandated by law. Those mandated benefits include workers’ and unemployment compensation insurance and employer contributions to Social Security.

Ad Hoc Process

Many factors, including national labor trends and expressed concern by Harvard students, prompted the Ad Hoc Committee’s formation.

Nationally, shifting temporary work patterns and the increased outsourcing of previously internal functions have changed the makeup of today’s workplace. In many of today’s workplaces regular employees work side by side with employees of outside firms that perform a variety of services, including temporary clerical and professional tasks, as well as longer-term cleaning and maintenance functions.

Student concern surrounding the “living wage” issue, combined with the adoption of different living wages in host cities Boston and Cambridge, as well as nearby Somerville, also brought the wage issue to the fore. The living wage ordinances vary from city to city, with Cambridge adopting $10 per hour, Boston $8.23, and Somerville $8.35. The ordinances also have a variety of exemptions, such as Cambridge’s exemptions for youth workers performing seasonal labor or students on cooperative work assignments.

The eight-member Ad Hoc Committee, which included five faculty members and three administrators, met 17 times between April 1999 and April 2000. Committee members reviewed a large amount of workforce data and conducted surveys of contractors and casual workers.