Two dozen low-wage workers at Kentucky State University (KSU) will get a raise to $10.25 an hour after the school’s interim president asked for his pay to be cut by about 25 percent, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. The workers currently make as little as $7.25 an hour, the lowest wage allowed by federal law.
“This is not a publicity stunt,” interim KSU president Raymond Burse told the newspaper. “You don’t give up $90,000 for publicity. I did this for the people,” he said. Burse, who retired from an executive position at General Electric in 2012, pointed out that “I don’t need to work” and “the people who do the hard work and heavy lifting, they are at the lower pay scale.”
Burse will only be KSU president for the next year while the school’s board searches for a long-term replacement for Mary Evans Sias, who retired at the end of June after 10 years as president. He was set to be paid just under $350,000 and asked that $90,000 of that be spent on staff wages instead. There is no guarantee that the workers’ wages will remain at $10.25 under future regimes should the school’s board of regents decide it needs that money for other purposes.
There are nine public university presidents and 42 private school presidents who make more than a million dollars per year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and KSU doesn’t make their rankings at all.
Burse said that he isn’t trying to shame other school presidents into making similar gestures, according to the Herald-Leader, and the school’s commitment to raising staff pay is an outlier. College presidents’ pay reflects the same rising inequality that pervades the broader economy. The number of school presidents earning more than a million dollars per year has risen in recent years, and one study has found that public universities that pay their presidents more also leave their graduates with higher debt levels and rely more on cheaper adjunct faculty than on long-term professors to teach their students. There are private-sector examples of the kind of small-scale generosity Burse and KSU are displaying, such as the Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas where executives returned bonuses to fund a pay increase for the hospital company’s lowest-paid workers. And at least one other school has made news for trying to link presidential salaries to staff wages.
But while such philanthropy helps small pockets of low-wage workers get out of poverty, it will take direct legislative action to restore the old relationship between hard work and economic self sufficiency. The traditional link between a full-time job and the ability to live independently is gone for millions of Americans who work in the dead zone between the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and the amount of money they would need to make to support their household. That living wage level ranges widely depending on who is doing the estimating and where in the country a worker lives, but one think tank puts the benchmark wage level necessary to escape poverty at $12 an hour.
The current federal minimum is worth less than it was decades ago thanks to inflation. Part-time scheduling further erodes workers’ ability to earn a decent living. And because the minimum wage is so low that even a full-time worker may qualify for public assistance programs, taxpayers are in effect subsidizing the poverty wages that corporate behemoths pay. President Obama and some Democrats in Congress have called for raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. State and local campaigns around the country have produced dozens of minimum wage hikes, with several of them coming in above the level targeted by federal lawmakers. In Seattle, a year-long campaign driven by worker activism, fast food strikes, and political upheaval on the city council ultimately drew the business community to the bargaining table and produced a compromise that raises the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour over the coming years.
States that approved minimum wage hikes this year have experienced stronger job growth over the first half of the year than those that have left workers hanging.
If legislative action on the minimum wage continues to spread, the number of people who would benefit would far outstrip the 24 KSU workers who are profiting by Raymond Burse’s generosity. Most of the job growth that has taken place since the end of the recession has come from low-paying work. Millions of people — most of whom are women, a quarter of whom have children, and almost all of whom are adults — would benefit from raising the minimum wage to $10.10.