Pay disparities among Dining and Facilities workers remain after 2010 pay restructuring

Danny Jin

Disparities in staff wages have resulted from the July 2010 discontinuation of a pay system that provided seniority-based raises for hourly staff in Dining and Facilities. Staff hired under the market-driven system instituted after the change have earned less than employees hired under the former system, although they work the same job. 

The five-year step plan previously in place had allowed staff to receive scheduled raises in their early years on the job, as well as a yearly cost-of-living increase. Currently, in addition to the cost-of-living increase, staff members receive a yearly market adjustment increase and have the opportunity to receive merit-based raises at the discretion of their supervisors. Staff members no longer receive a raise based on time served as they had under the step system.

The Williams Staff Committee (WSC) provided comment on sentiments that staff members have expressed regarding the discontinuation of the step plan.

“The elimination of the step program has made it virtually impossible for newly hired staff in a number of departments to ever reach the wages earned by staff who were hired prior to the elimination of the program,” WSC representatives wrote in an email. “Compensation concerns are a huge contributing factor to the staff morale issue the College is currently facing.”

Custodial wages, for example, rose to $22 per hour at the end of the five-year step plan for those hired before the change but typically peaked just above $15 per hour for those hired immediately after the change. While the College instituted a $15 minimum wage beginning Oct. 19, 2018, an imbalance of pay remains between workers performing the same job, although all make more than the market median, according to Fred Puddester, vice president of finance and administration.

Director of Human Resources Danielle Gonzalez said that the October increases sought to address these discrepancies.

“The pay adjustments we made this past fall were a result of some internal disparities we identified between newer hires and those who have been in their roles for a long time,” she said. “We have not made changes to the compensation plan structure.”

Bob Wright, executive director for Facilities operations, said that the 2010 change in pay structure was intended to shift Facilities and Dining to a market-based pay system, which was already used for other College employees. The majority of the College’s hourly staff members are in Dining and Facilities.

“The change in the plan at that time was to bring Facilities and Dining plans in line with all of the other College departments’ pay plans, which were market based,” Wright said.

The previous pay system had been instituted in the 1980s and was not as current as a market-based system, according to Gonzalez. Puddester said that while he was not at the College when the change was made, he has learned that it was an effort to have “one uniform system for all employees” without giving “double bumps” to any one department.

“It was Facilities and Dining that were on a separate pay scale from everyone else at the College,” Puddester said. “The decision was made for equity purposes to make things equal and not treat those two departments differently from everyone else … It was an extra pay increase each year for those two departments only.”

Employees hired under the new system made above market wage but less than their colleagues, Puddester explained. The College aims to pay each of its employees at or above the 60th percentile of pay for similar jobs with similar experience, as well as providing additional benefits.

“Through our HR department we do a pretty good job of identifying like positions at other institutions,” he said. “There are some positions – I know that there are some in Facilities – that are much higher than the 60th percentile… Added to that, we have much better benefits than most of our peers in terms of retirement payments, health insurance, leaves, so we have both wages that are above the median and benefits that are above the median for similar jobs and for similar experience.”

Staff members say that the shift from seniority to merit as the basis of raises – outside of cost of living – leaves them without a consistent mechanism for wage progression. Favoritism and poor evaluation have been cited as reasons for stagnant wages.

“The awarding of merit raises often depends on one’s supervisor,” WSC representatives wrote. “Merit raises are also typically not very significant, often coming in the form of a 1 percent raise or a one-time bonus. The college’s performance evaluation process also needs to be significantly revamped. It currently is not tied to merit raises.”

If supervisors do not provide evaluations, staff cannot receive raises. Wright said that custodians are evaluated each year, although some custodians say that their supervisors have not conducted evaluations.

“It’s been two years, and we still haven’t gotten an evaluation,” a custodian said. “So how can you even have merit raises?”

The majority of wage adjustment comes from cost of living increases, which usually total around 2.5 percent, greater than inflation as measured by the consumer-purchasing index (CPI), Puddester said. Market adjustments and merit increases may total approximately a 0.5 percent increase. 

“Our staff are not falling behind in terms of purchasing power,” Puddester said. “CPI has been 2 percent or less for the last eight years, and each of those years employees got 2.5 percent. My recollection is, in the 2000s, the raises were much greater than 2.5 percent, but certainly, the eight years I’ve been here, the staff salary increase – not including market adjustments – was in excess of inflation, which is remarkable in and of itself. It’s a system based on the market. A very small percentage of it is merit based.”

There is a “perception that the College is not investing in the betterment and retention of their staff,” according to WSC. Some view a perceived lack of resources devoted to staff as evidence of the College’s priorities. Staff are often unable to attend conferences “directly related to the work deemed as necessary for the college,” WSC said. 

Puddester told the Record in 2017 that although he was not at the College in 2010, he believed the 2007–08 recession had been a factor in restructuring of pay. He said on Friday that he understands “fairness” – terminating the separate system for Facilities and Dining workers – to have been the key motivation for the change. He said he also suspected that pressure to  “protect jobs” at the height of the recession could have been a motivator.

The College did not lay off any employees during the recession, Puddester said, although some positions were not filled when they became vacant. Wages were also frozen in 2009, meaning that employees did not receive a cost-of-living increase.

“We didn’t lay anyone off during the recession, which is remarkable ina nd of itself,” Puddester said. 

Some informal benefits enjoyed by staff – among them free massages and an opportunity to attend an annual Christmas party – were also discontinued after the recession.

“They said, ‘We’re going to give it back to you. We’re going to take away for a little bit, and we’ll give it back,’” said a custodian who was at the College during the recession. “Nothing came back.”

“If they started bringing us all back up again, it’s going to cost them money, which isn’t something they’re lacking in,” said a custodian hired after the end of the step system. “When you can take [$5 million] and donate it to Mount Greylock High School for their construction project, another $400,000 for the local police department, don’t tell me you don’t have the money – because I don’t believe it.” 

The College’s budget is divided into an operating budget and a capital budget, according to Puddester. The majority of the operating budget is used for wages and salaries, whereas much of the capital budget is used for construction projects. In the capital budget, over 95 percent comes from the College’s issuing debt, and most of the remaining portion comes from gifts to a specific project but cannot be allocated to other areas. As a result, the College does not use the capital budget for wages and salaries.

“You don’t want to borrow money to pay your bills – that’s not a good practice,” Puddester said. “The fact of the matter is [wages and] salaries are the first- or second-largest area of increases in the operating budget, financial aid being the other. About 60 percent of our budget is [wages and] salaries. We’re a people operation.”

The College reviews compensation each year to remain competitive with other institutions and to work toward internal equity. Puddester said that such factors as education and experience complicate issues of compensation.

“We continue to monitor that each budget season to see if we want to make any other adjustments to those folks who are a little below the folks they work with, but it’s a little more complicated than just saying, ‘I work job X, and someone across campus works the same job, but he or she gets paid more than me,’ because you have to incorporate experience,” Puddester said. “It’s a complex issue of setting wages based on education, experience, et cetera, but we do a lot of work with keeping pace with the industry. We make sure we’re not paying less than people at other institutions with similar jobs, and we work every year at creating internal equity in our own departments.”

Staff members, nevertheless, report that they have seen people turn down jobs at the College due to the wages and others who have left jobs at the College due to the wages. 

“When I came here, it was in the 93rd percentile that people were hired at Williams and retired at Williams. I can guarantee if you looked into that matter right now, it’s nowhere close,” said a custodian hired prior to the recession. “People walk in the door, they see what’s going on and it’s right back out the door. They’re not paying anything, and they think just because they have benefits, people are going to stay. Young kids are not going to work the way that we work for $15 and $16 an hour to take their lives in their hands at 5:30 in the morning and come here and shovel so people can get in and out of buildings.” 

“We work hard, and we deserve the money that we make. And it isn’t fair that Joe Schmoe isn’t making what Annie Hannie is making because we’re both out there in the sleet and the freezing rain doing the same job.”