Nickel-and-Diming It

Security in State Jobs

Traditionally, one of the things that has made state employment attractive has been the relative job security it offered. Most state employees enter a so-called "career life cycle" when they are hired; the life cycle details what an employee can reasonably expect to be making and doing five, 10, or 20 years down the line, assuming adequate job performance. By promising tangible future rewards, the ladder provides an incentive for state employees to work hard and earn promotions through their careers. (Other state colleges, such as the University of California system, have comparable salary ladders.)

In contrast, many UT staff members say their career "life cycle" bears a closer resemblance to a treadmill -- one which keeps them running in place, never certain when the payoff for their efforts will come. That's because unlike other state agencies and public universities, UT sets no career pay scale for its staff; instead, the school provides a more general minimum and maximum annual salary for each position. A groundskeeper, for example, could make as little as $14,004 or as much as $20,868, according to UT's salary plan; a chef at UT earns between $28,260 and $42,000. That range, however, is no guarantee that a worker will ever receive a raise. "There are workers who have been here for 25 years, and they only just got a wage increase to $14,000," says Peg Kramer, president of the University Staff Association. "There have been long-term low wages and a messed-up classification system for the last three decades. It's got to be redone."

Even the upcoming state-funded pay increase -- a boon granted thanks to the last-minute $840 million bonus dropped on budget writers by comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander -- fails to address the structural problems which plague UT's salary ladder, which offers lower wages and less opportunity for advancement than the state's general salary structure. A similar increase, granted by the 75th Legislature in 1997, did little to alleviate what staff members say are fundamental inequities.

Although UT's own 1998 minimum wage increase was hailed by many as a strong first attempt at revamping the system, a little context quickly diminishes the school's self-congratulatory stance. At Austin Community College, where required tuition and fees cost students as little as $40 per semester hour, the lowest-paid staff workers make around $8 an hour, a salary ACC trustee John Worley says may be raised another dollar this summer. ACC trustees decided to raise the lowest-paid workers' salaries above minimum wage last year, Worley says, in order "to give people a wage that you could raise a family on. I don't think we're there yet, but we're working on it." By paying staff better than the legal minimum, Worley says, he hopes ACC "will serve as an example to everybody."

Mara Coleman, a former ACC student and staff member, received a crash course in budgetary management when she left ACC after 16 years to become a student and entry-level secretary at UT. Along with her new job, Coleman took a drastic cut in pay -- from $8.19 an hour at ACC to $6.74, the new, improved UT minimum. "UT thinks they were doing me a big favor by paying me $6.74 an hour, because they were going to keep it at minimum wage," Coleman says. "When you're down in the dregs like I was, that little bit of money makes a big difference." Not only was her pay reduced, Coleman says, but her duties were soon expanded, until she could no longer handle both school and a full-time job. "For that amount of money, you might as well just scrimp and not have a heart attack and get some student loans. Why risk your health?" Coleman says. "Here they're charging people maybe twice as much [in tuition and fees] and they're paying people less." UT's wages also stack up poorly compared to both public and private sector employment, where comparable positions pay better wages across the classification scale.

UT administrators say they're trying to do something about the salary shortcomings; still, one wonders why staff wage issues weren't addressed a decade ago. UT president Faulkner insists that the university is doing everything it can to reverse pay inequities, to the extent that it made staff wages a top-priority issue in the legislative session that ends May 31. "What we need to do is in the $56 million range," Faulkner says. "Staff raises are very important. The concerns they've raised publicly, I've listened to consistently." For the next biennium, UT's budget increase will fall just shy of $21 million dollars -- $35 million less than Faulkner says would be required to meet the university's "bare-bone" needs.

Although legislators granted a much-needed pay raise for state workers and UT staff, it's important to note that nothing in the current budget provides for the long-term funding increases that UT would need to bring low-wage staff up to the Austin market level. And it seems safe to assume that the comptroller's budgetary largesse, and the booming state economy, will not last forever, which means that UT wages are likely to continue to fall behind without the benefit of serious structural change from within the university.


In Defense of Athletics

UT President, Larry Faulkner
UT President, Larry Faulkner

photograph by John Anderson

Several legislators have suggested, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that UT consider skimming money from its athletics programs, which are among UT's most lucrative financial operations. Sens. Rob Junell and Carlos Truan, the chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, have been among UT's most vocal challengers on funding issues. But UT officials contend that athletics profits, when they exist, are often already spoken for. "First of all," Faulkner says, "athletics is not profit-making. Athletics is subsidized by three million dollars a year."

Moreover, adds associate athletics director Ed Goble, budgetary provisions -- such as Title IX gender equity requirements -- compel more profitable athletics programs to give money to those which aren't so lucrative. "If you look at athletics in general, not just men's athletics but women's and all the rest, you'd see we don't always make a profit," Goble says. "We have a huge financial obligation to women's athletics. People who suggest we send money outside don't know that."

In fact, most of the costs incurred by men's athletics involved funding discretionary internal programs, like the massive renovations to Royal-Memorial Stadium. In 1998, the year the stadium expansion was completed, men's athletics began with a balance of more than $4 million. Of the approximately $21 million the program took in last year, it transferred around $1.9 million to women's athletics; other "intrafund transfers" to other UT programs totaled $2.5 million. But the bulk of the men's athletics budget -- over $12 million -- went to "other operating expenses," a term which Goble says encompasses "all the day-to-day costs of operating athletic programs." In 1998, a large proportion of those expenses included costs associated with the stadium renovation, including contract workers' salaries, fixtures, supplies, and utilities. Stadium expenses, not ordinary operating costs or transfers to women's athletics, caused men's athletics to run a deficit.

Following the money transferred between programs at UT can be a dizzying experience, made more so by the fact that such inter- and intra-fund transfers can take place between literally dozens of departments, making it difficult to discern which divisions are turning a profit and which are leaning on other, more lucrative enterprises. Complicating the situation further is the fact that many UT operations -- those which legislators suggested might pitch in to fund staff salaries -- are run as "auxiliary enterprises," semi-autonomous operations which are officially unfunded by the university but are free to exchange money among themselves. (Other auxiliaries besides Athletics include the Texas Union, the UT Press, and the Erwin Center.) The result is a budget of head-spinning complexity.

Increasingly, however, staff members are getting wise to UT's budgetary machinations. "Instead of telling these units [auxiliary enterprises], okay, you're going to get this much money from us, and put it all into one big budget, they make them all sink or swim," says sociology advisor Dana. "They make each of these places on campus isolated from each other and if one does well, it has no bearing on any other. ... It seems to me that if money is needed ... if somebody has a huge excess, that money could be siphoned off. But the university set it up in such a way that that's impossible."

Actually, says Budget Office director Mary Knight, UT's rules don't prohibit pulling funds from one auxiliary to fund a program, like staff salaries, elsewhere on campus. "Taking money from those units would be possible, if not very prudent," Knight says. "Those units do pay all of their own expenses, their own wages, benefits, insurance coverage, and their costs. They basically function as a mini-business on campus. ... Our inclination isn't to take money from them to cover other purposes."

The bottom line, says Dana, is that UT should be working to support academic achievement -- not to function as an efficient corporation, and not to subsidize the prospects of future NFL draftees. "There's a real problem in priorities," Dana says. "Athletics wouldn't be here if it weren't for the fact that the university is a place of learning. ... I think it's good to have a great football team or a great basketball team, or whatever, but if academics suffer, then there's a problem."

Even if UT decides to change its salary structure, several aspects of Faulkner's current proposal are certain to infuriate many faculty and staff. Among these is Faulkner's insistence that a 6% increase, apportioned over two years, would require a hiring freeze. "We would have to stop replacing people who depart the university by holding replacements to 25% of departures" indefinitely, Faulkner says. He acknowledges that such a move would likely increase UT's already large student-faculty ratio (currently 22 students for every faculty member), but adds that he considers it a small price to pay to ensure raises for those who remain.

But what that means is that only one in every four employees who leave would be replaced. And the burden of such a tactic would fall most heavily on the shoulders of classified staff, whose turnover rate since 1994 has averaged 12.6% a year -- higher than any other group of employees at UT, according to information provided by UT's Office of Human Resources. If Faulkner is serious, staff would face a likely attrition rate of 9.5% a year for the duration of the hiring freeze -- about one in every 10 staff positions would be eliminated each year, leaving fewer people than ever to perform a workload that many say is heavier than ever. And that, staff say, is enough to ignite an all-out war with administration among those who remain.

"We've been through hiring freezes in the early Nineties, and that was a really bad time for staff," says Alice Andrews, an advisor in the department of psychology. "From the trenches, I can tell you it was eight months of hell. People were leaving or volunteering to leave if they could get a better paying job elsewhere. It gave us a very bad reputation."

Like Andrews, Dan Elgin, an administrative assistant and computer specialist in the department of electrical engineering, contends that a hiring freeze would impose a "triple whammy" on staff. "I think carrying out that policy would be inexcusable," he says. "It doesn't make sense to have staff members who are doing two or three full-time employees' worth of work already to have to do more. We have skeleton crews on national holidays already, but I think ... we'd be at skeleton crew levels at the university all the time within a matter of months."

UT's internal raise proposal, a flat percentage increase, would disproportionately benefit the tiny elite on the top of the staff pay scale -- those making above $65,000, who according to the 1997 study by Buck Consultants already make more than the Austin market average. "It increases the wage gap -- 6% of $100,000 is $6,000, whereas 6% of $20,000 is only $1,200," UT Staff Association president Kramer says.

On the other hand, the $100 wage increase granted by a joint House-Senate conference committee last week, although it will certainly help those on the bottom of UT's salary ladder, is not a permanent solution; UT will have to find money for future increases after 2000 in its own budget, and a number of structural changes will be required for UT staff to see their wages reach anything like Austin's market average. But staff members say it's a victory in itself to have forced the issue onto UT's agenda; and, advisor Dana says, they intend to make sure it stays there. "There's more pressure on the administration," Dana says. "Faulkner actually talks about it. He's finally saying we will get a raise, which I doubt he would have done ... if it hadn't been for our efforts."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

University Of Texas, Ut Staff Association, Salary, Wage, Legislature, Jackie Dana, Larry Faulkner, Pat Kramer, Gonzalo Barrientos

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