TLSC initiates forum on higher working wages

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October 15, 2010

12:31 AM

Rossie Coleman skipped work to be here.

He works three jobs during the week, including one as a housekeeper at the College of William and Mary.

“If the College of William and Mary is my primary employer, why don’t you all do something so that I don’t have to work two or three jobs?” he said. “I get up in the morning and I don’t stop ’till nine or 10 o’clock.”

Coleman was one of three College staffers to participate in “Workers Speak Out,” a Living Wage Coalition event that allowed staff members to express their concerns about their roles within the College community.

Thursday night’s forum was part of an effort to increase the hourly wages of staff on campus. According to LWC, average hourly pay at the College hovers around $10.90.

“This campaign for me means better staffing and better communication,” housekeeper Shelly Givens said at the forum. “Just because it says ‘housekeeper’ on my paperwork does not mean I am slow or illiterate.”

Coleman, Givens and Josie Johnson answered questions from students about how their levels of pay have affected their livelihood, and explained the challenges of being housekeepers at the College.

Although improving hourly wages was cited as their chief concern, Coleman, Givens and Johnson also said that poor communication, under-staffing and a lack of respect for housekeeping staff contributed to a problem with morale on campus.

Johnson, who has been at the College for 10 years, said that under-staffing places an unreasonable burden on housekeepers who remain on the job. In what she referred to as high-maintenance student housing — the units were specifically cited — this prevents staff from performing their jobs efficiently.

“When you’re not properly staffed, you have a hard time getting things properly sanitized every day,” Johnson said. “They filled the vacancies, so now the next step is a living wage.”

Statistics cited by the LWC put a living wage for a single-parent, single-child household in Williamsburg at $2,262, not including the cost of health care.

“I really wish I was getting a living wage so I could live like a normal person,” Johnson said. “I don’t have a degree; I don’t expect $60,000 per year.”

Johnson added that she makes approximately $20,000 annually.

Another concern raised by the forum was the condition of staff break rooms, which Coleman described as deplorable. Last year, housekeepers in Earl Gregg Swem Library said that their break room had been converted into a storage closet.

According to Coleman, staff are forbidden from using student lounges in residence halls during their breaks.

“We’re unable to sit in the lounges that we clean,” he said. “I can clean it, [but] I can’t sit there to catch my breath.”

The event was sponsored in conjunction with several student and local organizations, including the Tidewater Labor Support Committee, which has been present on campus for 11 years.

Approximately 100 students, faculty and staff attended the event, held in Andrews 101. College President Taylor Reveley was present in the audience, but he did not address the assembly.

“I think it’s important the housekeepers get out there and see the students support them,” Reveley said after the forum. “It’s a very hard job, and I can understand at times that it puts strain on the people doing it, but there are no simple answers.”

Last week, LWC organized a rally in the rim Dell meadow to promote living wages for College staff. The march concluded at Blow Memorial Hall as members of the College’s Board of Visitors exited the building. Reveley took the opportunity to thank TLSC for advocating on behalf College staff, underlining the importance of their roles in the College community.

KB Brower ’11 opened Thursday’s forum by thanking the staff members for their participation. Students were then able to submit questions on index cards to volunteers, who chose questions for Coleman, Givens and Johnson to answer.

History professor and labor expert Cindy Hahamovitch then gave a brief history of the TLSC and its role in previous efforts to improve staff wages at the College.

Although staff wages improved several years ago, Hahamovitch said that wages remain well below what is considered a living wage.

After the event, Brower said that LWC will continue with events in support of the wage increase over the coming weeks.

“We do have long-term plans to keep pushing until this happens,” she said.

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