UF persuades its vendors to increase campus wages

Published: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
The University of Florida has successfully wielded the "velvet club" of its buying power, prevailing upon the two largest employers on campus to improve pay for their workers.
Effective Oct. 1, Aramark and the Follett Corp. began paying full-time employees working on campus at least $8.84 an hour, a wage commensurate with UF's minimum pay.
UF's food services are outsourced to Aramark, and the university's bookstore is managed by Follett.
UF instituted its own minimum wage, which now exceeds the federal standard of $5.15 by $3.69, around 2001.
In a recent speech, UF President Bernie Machen called the new contracts with vendors an example of the university using its buying power as a sort of "velvet club," convincing corporations to adopt policies that improve the lives of Gainesville residents.
Ed Poppell, UF's vice president for administrative affairs, said Tuesday that the new contracts are tied to the university's overall "sustainability" initiative. The sustainability movement, which is growing on college campuses, calls on universities to encourage greater economic development, social responsibility and environmental stewardship.
Once Poppell laid out the reasons for increasing wages, he said that Aramark and Follett were both receptive to the idea.
"I don't want to use the word pressure, because I don't think there was pressure," he said of the negotiations. "It was 'we're all in this together.' "
Aramark employs more than 630 people who work on UF's campus, about 60 percent of whom are students. Of that number, about 100 are full-time hourly workers who could potentially be affected by the wage hike. Karen Cutler, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia-based Aramark, said she could not say how many employees required wage increases to meet the terms of the contract.
Pam Goodman, a spokeswoman for Follett, said eight entry-level employees working at UF needed a "slight increase" in wages to meet the new standard. She emphasized, however, that when employee benefits are factored into the pay equation that Follett was already paying employees "well above the university's minimum wage."
"I just don't want to leave the impression that we're not paying a living wage," Goodman said. "We actually are when you factor in the benefits."
Both companies have entered into similar agreements with other universities. Before the agreement with UF, Follett had three similar contracts with other universities that required payment commensurate with the universities' own minimum wages, Goodman said. Of those three prior agreements, only one required Follett to pay any employees more than they had been paid prior to the company entering the contract, she said.
Universities aren't the only institutions demanding higher pay for employees. The city of Gainesville requires that all new contractors pay $9.62 an hour to employees with health insurance and $10.87 an hour to employees without health insurance.
The state of Florida also sets a higher standard than the federal government. Florida's minimum wage, which will hit $6.67 per hour Jan. 1, exceeds that of the federal minimum wage by $1.52. In addition to the District of Columbia, Florida is among 22 states that have minimum wages higher than the federal standard.
Liana Fox, an economic analyst with the Economic Policy Institute, said the move toward higher wages at the level of states, cities, counties and even universities indicates just how out of step the federal minimum wage is with today's cost of living. The adoption of higher wages at local levels could help to bring change at the federal level, she said.
"I absolutely think the more state and local minimum wages pass, the more pressure it puts on the federal government," she said.
In a heated election year, the subject of the minimum wage has emerged as an issue, particularly for Democrats. U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the party's minority leader from California, has said that a bill increasing the minimum wage to $7.25 would be introduced in the first 100 hours of a Democratically controlled Congress. The party needs to win 15 seats to take the House.
Like the proponents of UF's minimum wage, supporters of a higher wage at the federal level suggest that an increase is the socially responsible thing to do for American workers. As for whether UF's current higher wage is really high enough to meet the standard of "socially responsible," there's likely still debate.
"That's an evaluation," Poppell said. "We have a long way to go in a lot of ways. We've made a lot of progress."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com

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