An Ole Miss professor initiates long-term class project to raise the minimum wage on campus.
After years of working, Tonia Adams’ hands are callused but agile.
“I tell you: my day is so long,” Adams said. “These hands, oh God, they hurt so bad sometimes because I work so much on them. I’m constantly doing something with these hands. But I love everything I do.”
Adams has worked on the cleaning staff of the Chi Omega sorority house for 15 years. Every morning, she gets up at 5 a.m. and heads to the first of her three jobs, which include cleaning condos off campus and delivering newspapers for the Oxford Eagle.
“The reason I picked up the (third) job is because my daughter went to college and, me, I’m a single mom,” Adams said. “Her father was killed in a car crash last year. That left me with a lot on me.”
She works for a yearly wage of less than $22,000 a year, or less than $11 an hour. Her wages keep her afloat, but no more.
Sociology professor James Thomas thinks wages shouldn’t work this way. He said a salary should enable you to buy food, housing and security without public assistance. So, Thomas launched a living wage campaign in his social problems class this semester to raise the minimum pay at the university to $17.28 an hour.
He said unsustainable wages cross the lines of race, gender and class – making it applicable to both workers on campus and students interested in social problems.
“When we think about a living wage issue, the people who work the jobs that pay below a living wage threshold proportionally are overrepresented by people of color and women,” Thomas said. “This isn’t just an issue about class or income. Living wage is a really comprehensive way to address systemic, intersecting, durable inequalities.”
All semester, the students in Thomas’ class have written claims and groundwork for the campaign. Ian Whalen, a senior sociology major, said this class has differed from others he has taken in the field.
“A regular sociology class really focuses on the theory of action,” Whalen said. “We talk about social movements and social concepts. But in this class, we’re actually going out and doing activist work.”
Though he is graduating, Whalen said he hopes to continue working with the campaign while at graduate school next year.
“I think it’s really innovative because you actually feel involved in something. You feel like it’s not just a class where you’ll go and take notes and write a paper on a book you read,” Whalen said. “You’re applying what you’re learning to an actual movement. I really love it.”
Thomas used a living wage calculator developed in 2001 by MIT professor Amy Glasmeier to calculate the basic needs for a single adult and a dependent in Lafayette County. The calculator accounts for prices of food, transportation, housing and many other geographically variable factors.
On this campus, a wage of $17.28 per hour would increase the paychecks of 249 recognized staff positions, or nearly 32 percent of the staff positions on campus, according to the department of human resources job descriptions and pay rate ranges.
Thomas said he expects the effort to take at least three years.
“I’m willing to do this for as long as it takes,” Thomas said. “The consequences could be huge, right? If the university says they’ll do it, would this be something other major universities in the state decide they’re also going to do? Does that put pressure on legislatures in Mississippi in Jackson?”
Mississippi has resisted raising wages. In 2013, the state legislature passed House Bill 141, which said no city, county or municipality could set a minimum wage higher than the federally-approved $7.25 an hour.
But this doesn’t prohibit an individual employer – like the university – from raising hourly wages.
University Staff Council President Carl Hill said he knows many people staff who work multiple jobs.
“After taxes and insurance comes out, you’re roughly looking at $1,000-$1,100 a month,” Hill said. “(That) goes really quickly when you think about living in Oxford, where the cost of living is a little more expensive.”
The university has already recognized the need for higher wages in some respects, Hill said. Ole Miss currently pays a minimum wage of $10.25 an hour.
Larry Sparks, vice chancellor for administration and finance, said these workers are the backbone of the university.
“For a university, the number one resource is our people,” Sparks said. “We all have needs and expectations. If you make a commitment to your individuals, it helps starting with employee morale and moves to things like stability. You see individuals who stay longer.”
The $10.25 per hour university minimum wage was not always so high. In 2004, the wage matched the $5.15 per hour national average.
Sparks predecessor, John M. Williams, began the initiative under the in-house slogan “10 by 10,” which hoped to reach a $10 minimum wage by 2010. Though this was delayed by the 2008 economic recession, the university reached this goal in 2011.
“Since that point, we have increased it as we could. We look at it annually as we’re going through our budget process,” Sparks said. “Every year, the question is ‘Can we afford to raise the minimum wage?’”
The university made the last jump to a $10.25 minimum just last semester, and Sparks said and the budget might allow for another increase this year.
The problem is not the principle of raising the minimum wage, but the ripple effect, Sparks said. Staff members who have longevity – those who have been working on campus for years or even decades – are rewarded for their commitment with increasing raises. If the minimum is raised, others must rise to compensate.
But the main problem is the availability of funds, Sparks said, especially if the university were to increase wages to $17.28 an hour at once.
“To do it in one fell swoop, I think, would be catastrophic for this institution,” Sparks said.
The university is heavily dependent upon tuition because only about 15 percent of daily operations are funded by state appropriation, Sparks said. At this point, Sparks said the state has neither the growth rate nor the funding to raise the minimum to $17.28.
Sparks said he has a tentative solution.
“There’s ways to accomplish everything. The question becomes: are you willing to do what it takes to accomplish it?” Sparks said. “Could we do it over a period of time and set goals and benchmarks? Absolutely.”
“If we are committed, and you see persistent attempts year after year to provide wages even when other institutions are unable to, then I hope that shows our commitment to our individuals,” Sparks said.
Sparks said the university has raised the living wage seven out of the past eight years. He said though he wasn’t sure how long it would take to reach a living wage because it depends on the ever-changing yearly budget, he is sure that it can be done.
Until then, men and women like Tonia Carter will continue working to make ends meet.
“Oxford is a great place to live and a great place to raise your kids. It’s just, with the economy growing so big around here, it makes it so expensive for you,” Carter said. “It’s really hard being a single mom with two girls, but I just feel so blessed that I’ve made it.”