Living Wage continuing concern at UGA

With 19.7 percent of Athens-Clarke County residents living below poverty, the county’s largest employer refuses reform to provide aid.

The University of Georgia, the largest employer in Athens-Clarke County, has been criticized for its slow response to the county’s high poverty rate.  The county has the fifth highest poverty rate in the nation, and is consistently one of the poorest counties in the state of Georgia, according to Partners For A Prosperous Athens, a collaborative initiative consisting of prominent Athens community members.

The University has been condemned for paying low wages and allowing its own employees to remain impoverished.  Amid the criticism, the University turned over the problem of solving the issue to its own council and committees.

The University Council created an ad hoc committee in 2006 to assess pay and benefits for low wage University employees.  According to the committee’s report, published April 3, 2007, six findings were made and 15 recommendations were presented.

Recommendations included a tiered payment system for employee healthcare benefits, reclassification of part-time employees working more than 35 hours per week to “regular” employees with full benefits, and equivalent pay rates between temporary and regular employees performing the same work.

Although recommendations were presented to the University administration in mid 2007, they have yet to be put into effect, according to Maggie Kilgo, Living Wage Campaign member and University student.

They were approved unanimously by the University Council.

Due to the slow response, the Living Wage Campaign has acted as a voice for the low wage employees, and has lobbied its message through public demonstrations and petitions.  Consisting of University students, employees and retired professors, the group has met with the administration to discuss the campaign progress.

The campaign hosts small, weekly rallies downtown at the arch, every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., to raise awareness for the community.

Following their last major rally on February 12, Adams met with the group and explained  that he agreed ideologically with the report, but the implementation of such a plan was impossible due to the recession and University budget crisis.

When asked what the University’s explanation was in 2006 before the recession, Kilgo did not have an answer.  She said the University had simply said that they could not afford it.

While the University is the focus of the campaign, it is not the only group of employees affected by a raise in wages.

“Because the University is the largest employer in Athens-Clarke County by three times, if they were to increase their wages, wages at all the surrounding businesses would go up as well,” Kilgo said.

A trickle effect could help those in the downtown community living at or below the poverty level.  Those contacted to discuss their economic situations would not return e-mail or phone calls at the time this story was written.

Athens-Clarke County had an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent as of February, 2009, with an estimated total civilian labor force of 108,870 people, according to documents obtained on the Georgia Department of Labor Web site.  That is an approximate 3 percent increase from February, 2008.

The committee report recommended the minimum hiring rate of the University be raised to $24,000 by January 1, 2010.  It also suggested reformation of the Human Resources Division to more actively monitor and address salary compensation.  Under the recommendations, yearly findings are to be turned over to the University Council for review.

The current compensation plan is based on a civil service model, and the report calls for   revision of the 30 year old plan based on it being out of date.

The committee also recommended the development of procedures to move temporary employees into regular, benefit-eligible positions.  According to the report, only five employees who began working for the University in 1999 were still actively on payroll as of December 31, 2005.

Kilgo believes the committee was formed in good faith, and seemed unsure of whether it was created to appease dissenters in 2006.

“I think that the University Council and the committee specifically recognized that there was a problem at the University, and that it did need to be addressed,” Kilgo said.

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