Opinion: Time for UVM to value and prioritize its staff

Ellen Kaye, Rachel Wallace-Brodeur and Alison Nihart are co-lead negotiators and staff members at the University of Vermont. Their OpEd was published in VTDigger.

Chronic understaffing at the University of Vermont, caused by years of wage compression, pay inequities and mismanagement, is creating unreasonable workloads for staff and making it more and more difficult for us to support the students and Vermont communities we serve.

UVM Staff United, a union of approximately 1,350 staff, firmly believes that now is the time for UVM to show that it values its staff. As we bargain our first contract, we call on UVM to come to an agreement with us as quickly as possible on our top priority: pay equity and livable wages for all.

The thousands of eye-opening and often alarming conversations we had with colleagues inspired us to organize our union to improve our working lives. Here are some of our stories.

Emira Smailigic, from Communication and Science Disorders, at UVM for 24 years and still paid less than $20 per hour, reflects, “I could go on and on about how my salary doesn’t allow me to make ends meet and how hard it is for our family. We need UVM to see us as human beings and to understand how serious our needs are.”

Crispina Pincus, from the College of Education and Social Services, took a pay cut to move from Columbia University in New York to work in Vermont. She shares, “I was shocked to learn that some staff had to depend on food pantries just to have enough food to feed their families. I myself have had to depend on my sister for help with food, and I have had to get a second job just to get by.“

Tiffany Sharp, from UVM Office of Health Promotion Research for 17 years, still paid less than $20 per hour, shares, “Stagnant wages have put my family into so much debt it’s impossible to see us getting out of it. Over the years, we’ve relied upon food stamps, WIC, heating and electric assistance. Meanwhile, President Garimella is paid 10 times more than me.”

Annie Valentine works in the Division of Student Affairs. “We feel the squeeze from all sides. Students and families are asking for more in these challenging times, while internally departmental restructures and vacant positions leave us depleted on all fronts. I have lost over 50 colleagues in (the Division of Student Affairs) and it is not lost on me that many of them were staff of color. Staff voices have been dismissed and we’re undervalued.”

The important work we do for our students and Vermont communities must be valued, and UVM should seek to reach a fair agreement with us as soon as possible. None of our colleagues should be working full-time jobs and require a second job, need housing or food assistance, or struggle to pay their bills. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the case and it’s unacceptable.

While UVM has grown in recent years, it has failed to adjust staffing to accommodate this growth. From 2011 to 2021, when enrollment of first-time students increased by 17.4%, instructional and research faculty staffing increased by 29%. However, non-faculty staffing levels have not increased despite increased workloads.

Furthermore, our unionized faculty colleagues have received 12.4% more in raises over the same time period. Failure of UVM’s cost of living adjustments to keep up with the Consumer Price Index in recent years, including a 4.8% increase in 2021, means that UVM staff are earning less today than in 2017.

We are watching with alarm as staff leave UVM in droves in search of a job that can pay the bills, while those left behind struggle to uphold the level of support that students and the community deserve.

There is a way forward. UVM can draw upon its resources so that no staff are forced to take second jobs or be food- or housing-insecure.

The UVM endowment grew by almost $170 million in net assets last year. That’s right — at the very same time that staff was forced to take pay cuts, UVM grew its endowment from $562 million in 2020 to $731 million in 2021, which includes $5.5 million in nonrestricted funds. Further, UVM projects a record enrollment in 2022, resulting in 8.3% increase in tuition and fee revenues; an almost $30 million increase from an already profitable year.

We call on UVM administrators to work with us and make pay equity and livable wages a reality. Instead of hoarding resources, UVM can put its social mission into practice by raising wages and circulating money throughout our local economy at a moment of real economic hardship. Now is the time for UVM to value and prioritize staff.