Laurie Fenlason: Column mischaracterized employee relations at Smith College in Northampton
Bruce Cichy of Granby, a dining room coordinator at Smith College, designates a dish as vegan as he sets up a meal in the dining common at Gillett House in 2007. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — In his Oct. 5 Gazette column about Smith College, Bill Newman presents information selectively — an unfortunate tactic sometimes used during collective bargaining but not what Gazette readers, nor Smith employees, deserve.
Smith values highly its dining services and housekeeping staff. This is evidenced in many ways, including their compensation. Employees and the union itself affirm that our wage rates and benefits are among the best anywhere. New employees in these departments typically receive higher hourly pay rates than they would receive in any area university, college, hospital, hotel or restaurant. Our starting rates for most positions are between 7 percent and 28 percent higher than those at the other four colleges in the Five College consortium.
These rates are significantly higher than other institutional dining settings, such as restaurants or hospitals. As employees progress in their employment, their pay remains among the most competitive anywhere. Moreover, while other institutions staff their dining operations with an abundance of temporary, non-benefits-eligible positions, this is rarely the case at Smith. There are only three such positions among 132 dining and housekeeping jobs at the college; they fill a temporary gap while we recruit and hire regular full-time positions.
Perhaps one of the most egregious assertions made by the union is the claim that dining workers’ salaries have lost ground to inflation. Readily available Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that claim is not supported. Since 2004 — the point from which the union presented its data — dining services salaries at Smith have slightly outpaced inflation, even in the context of a challenging economy when many workers nationwide have experienced static earnings.
As with wages, Smith’s benefits are among the most generous in this region and include tuition benefits for employees and their dependents. In the area of health insurance, we have long offered subsidies to those earning less than $47,493 a year, and recently informed the union that the income eligibility threshold for the health insurance subsidy will be enhanced by 26 percent effective in 2014. With that enhancement, employees with family incomes below $60,000 will receive health insurance subsidies.
Newman refers to a 32-hour-per-week, nine-month employee whose family health insurance costs take up a significant portion of her salary. He fails to mention that this employee has repeatedly turned down the opportunity to take on full-time hours during the academic year as well as summer employment. She declined a less expensive health insurance option available to her and she received other benefits from the college, including a 9 percent pension contribution and a $12,690 tuition grant for her dependent child. Few, if any, other employers provide such benefits.
It is true that Smith has fewer dining employees than it did in past years. The number of dining locations has changed from 26 to 11, with the result that the college does not need to staff as many separate locations. As these changes were enacted, over time, the college worked in consultation with dining staff and managers to design kitchen renovations and simplify menus and service in order to moderate demands on individual staff.
Our dining services employees vote with their feet. The average tenure in our dining services is 18 years. During those years, many employees complete their own education or send their children to college through our tuition benefit programs and work nine-month schedules, if they prefer them, to be home with school-age children in the summer. We readily fill open dining positions and have the privilege of a highly qualified, creative and dedicated dining staff who consistently report greater satisfaction with work at Smith than with their previous employers.
Smith is home to seven unions and has had a union presence for more than 50 years. We have a long history of positive employer relations. Negotiations happen on a regular, scheduled basis. The assertion that negotiations are “stalled” is a puzzling one, as the college and the union are meeting regularly, in good faith, and many proposals are on the table. We have every expectation that a positive outcome will be reached for all involved.
Laurie Fenlason is vice president for public affairs at Smith College.