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A day after Capilouto raise announcement, campus worker union lobbied for hazard pay in Frankfort

This article originally appeared in The Kentucky Kernel on December 16th, 2021. 

Every day of the pandemic, custodian Cory Pollard had to come into work, sanitizing campus to protect students, faculty and staff from COVID-19. He and his coworkers never got a break, he said, because UK considered them essential workers. However, until recently, the state government and legislature weren’t considering campus workers like Pollard essential workers, at least for the purposes of the distribution of American Rescue Plan funds.  

The recently passed American Rescue Plan aims to reinvigorate the national economy by delivering relief to workers. According to the White House, under the plan, the government will distribute $360 billion to states, localities and territories to fund the salaries of essential workers and other programs and services necessary to keep COVID-19 under control. 

Kentucky will receive about $2.1 billion of that amount, based on its number of unemployed workers as of late 2020. State officials, such as Gov. Andy Beshear and the General Assembly, are then responsible for deciding how to allocate this money. Beshear has said he wants to use $400 million exclusively for frontline and other essential workers who worked throughout the pandemic to keep the economy and society running, according to WKYT. The final plan, though, which is still being debated, will come before the General Assembly in Jan. 2022.  

On Wednesday, Dec. 15, several members of United Campus Workers (UCW), a union for workers at the University of Kentucky, headed to Frankfort to testify on the behalf of UK’s campus workers. Rachel Davis Young, a UCW member and grad worker in sociology, said the state legislature hadn’t been considering campus workers as essential workers until UCW reached out to them. 

“Really, the university should be the one advocating on workers’ behalf, but they're not doing that,” Young said. “We gave them the opportunity to go with us to advocate on behalf of workers, and they chose not to, and so we have workers who are making very little money, who are taking vacation days out of their own pocket essentially, to go advocate on their own behalf because the university won't do it for them.”

UCW is pushing for $1,000 to $1,500 bonuses for all campus workers. Earlier this year, the union successfully lobbied for a $15 minimum wage for most campus workers, but this pay raise does not apply to everyone and was only the first step for union members. Young said the union’s aspirational wage is the living wage as defined by the MIT living wages calculator, which lands at $13.88 an hour for single workers with no children and $27.28 for two working adults with one child living in the Lexington area, for example.  

Junior Johnna Warkentine joined UCW last year after several frustrating campus work experiences. While working at the campus library, she earned $8 an hour, an amount she said “wasn’t enough for [her] to pay for anything,” and after being abruptly let go from a different campus job during COVID-19, she was not given any severance pay to support her during her transition period. 

“I was annoyed about how undergrad students do a lot of the tasks that keep the university running, just like all the rest of the employees, but are not paid anything really,” Warkentine said. “I hope that by showing our support that we can show the legislature that there is real support for workers and for hazard pay, especially because people who worked in the pandemic and continue to work in public areas really put their lives at risk and keep society running.”

Junior Ian Harrison said he thinks UCW has a “nonzero chance” of securing hazard pay after their testimony in Frankfort, partially because he knows Gov. Beshear is sympathetic to their concerns. Keegan Stewart, an ICU nurse for UK HealthCare, also hopes that the state realizes the full extent of who qualifies as an essential worker. 

“It’s not just the healthcare providers that provide care physically to patients,” Stewart said. “It’s also the instructors who teach the next group of healthcare providers. It’s also the librarians who kept the law library open so that lawyers could figure out what the law was or law students could continue being law students.” 

UCW’s push for hazard pay came a day after the Board of Trustees announced a $200,000 raise for UK President Eli Capilouto, from about $800,000 base pay salary to $1,035,646, plus retention payments. The raise makes Capilouto’s salary 10% greater than the average of the two highest paid SEC public university presidents. The move was explained as a way “to send a signal that we are strongly behind this leader and his vision for UK and Kentucky.” 

The email, signed by BOT Chair Robert Vance, also listed several achievements the University of Kentucky has reached under Capilouto’s tenure, including record levels of retention and graduation rates, tuition rates below the level of inflation over the last four years, a record $470 million devoted to research in 2020, a $3 billion investment in campus infrastructure, development of a nationally ranked hospital system and a “renewed and emboldened commitment to a more diverse, inclusive and welcoming campus that reflects the world our students will enter and in which they will compete.”

The timing is telling for UCW members, who believe the money devoted to Capilouto’s raise should have been given to essential campus workers, who generally receive a one to two percent raise without a cost-of-living adjustment each year if they are a full-time employee, not to an already wealthy individual like Capilouto. Young said it sends the message to students and campus workers that they don’t matter as much as the people at the very top.

“I know that students got a tuition increase this year, and that really hurt at a time when so many people have lost their jobs [and] have lost loved ones,” Young said. “It especially hurts because in May 2020, Eli Capilouto promised to donate 10% of his salary in an effort to increase equity on campus in compensation. I guess that was easy for him to promise to do now that he's gotten more than that in a pay raise … It feels like the university is treating Eli Capilouto like he's the CEO of a successful corporation and not the president of a land grant institution for higher education, which should be serving the public good, not some idea of profits.” 

Stewart said the raise doesn’t make sense when UK HealthCare is still short on nurses and doctors and wants to open new floors to address the effects of the pandemic. 

“How much of his raise, how many nurses could they hire?’” she asked. “How many doctors could they hire?”

Pollard said UCW representatives were given a few minutes to speak in front of a panel of state officials in Frankfort. A few groups spoke before them, lobbying for teachers, faculty and staff in their respective counties, and he said there seemed to be a positive reception toward them. However, until the General Assembly’s January decision, it’s just a waiting game for UCW. 

As for Capilouto’s raise, Pollard said he received a 1.8% raise this year — around 25 cents — and that the discrepancy between his increase and Capilouto’s tells him something he already knew. 

“This university has got plenty of money,” Pollard said. “For us to fight for the minimum wage that we did get was long overdue, and it’s a shame that we had to form a union in order to get the raises and the pay that we deserve.”