UNC Housekeepers Facing Poor Working Conditions

In the June 8 edition of the Independent Weekly, Joe Schwartz reports that a housekeeper at UNC Chapel Hill has filed a lawsuit against the university alleging sexual harrassment in what appears to be the latest in a series of reports of poor working conditions for UNC housekeeping staff. Schwartz reports that the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that Chancellor Thorp has spent more than $100,000 to hire a firm out of DC to investigate. This investigation is ongoing.

In my work on the advisory board for the Carolina Campus Community Garden, I have had the opportunity to speak with members of the university's housekeeping staff about their working conditions. One housekeeping zone supervisor recently told me that, although she personally has not experienced or witnessed sexual harrassment herself, she knows that working conditions are poor for many of her counterparts.

Low wages certainly are also an issue. The primary beneficiaries of the bounty from the Carolina Campus Community Garden are housekeepers (primarily Burmese/Karen and African American) who use the produce to supplement their incomes. In fact, the garden was started to assist low-income UNC employees during the economic downturn. To be fair, a number of the housekeeping zone supervisers and the original housekeeping director named in the Indy article have bent over backwards to get their workers to the produce distribution sites. You can support the work of the Carolina Campus Community Garden by volunteering at the garden on Wednesdays and Sundays from 3 to 5 pm or by making a donation

A fundraiser is planned for this weekend at the home of local author and civil rights historian Tim Tyson to support the organizing of workers to fight these hostile work conditions. The funds raised will be used to cover expenses like child care for meetings, gas, and Spanish, Karen, and Burmese language translation and interpretation services for housekeepers pursuing lawsuits and better working conditions. At this fundraiser a number of UNC housekeepers will share their experiences.


Low wages are an issue?  How can that be when UNC housekeepers make more money than about 99% of people in human history. But of course, how much money you make isn't the point, instead how much it will buy is what matters. And how far their money will go depends on how much they have to spend to live, especially for big items like where they live and how much it costs them to get to work. Considering that and considering the high cost of housing in CH/C due to the low supply relative to demand and considering the high cost of gas for people to get to CH/C that don't live near it, why are we using a piece of land just one-quarter of a mile from the UNC campus for a garden instead of for housing for people that work at UNC?  With regards to this issue and many others that are discussed around here I think that people forget that it's much more efficient to ship food than it is to ship people.  Efficiency generates wealth.

People who make no money make as much as most people have in human history. So to solve the housing for people who work at UNC, maybe we should just relieve them of their jobs & solve the transportaion problem??

I was also surprised that low wages are cited as a problem. Housekeepers at UNC-CH make 22K-25K. By comparison, starting teachers with a BA make $30K.

It would not be a stretch to observe that housekeepers work at least as hard as other workers, including teachers.

But it is an unskilled position.

The most dangerous and essential job in local government is Trash Collector.  Janitor and sewage plant operator come a close second and third.  These jobs are the front line in protecting public health.  Our public health workers put themselves in harms way in order to protect the rest of us from disease accident etc., yet how do you thank them?  Unskilled?  What do you know about it.  Nothing, I am sure.

I know that individuals on the Carrboro BOA have advocated for living wages. What do housekeepers and trash collectors make in Carrboro?

 A living wage is a wage you can live on.  That means it depends not only on how much money you're paid but also what that money can buy.  And when it comes to what money can buy, this area consistently makes choices in development that results in a given amount of money buying less rather than more.  Therefore I am skeptical that the powers that be in this area are truly concerned about people getting a living wage.

What does a 'living wage' mean? Does it mean that you are paid enough to support yourself or to raise a family? Rent an apartment or buy a house? Live in town or within some number of miles of your job? There are so many parameters to life; we all make decisions about what we can afford based on what we earn. How does the government determine what a job is worth in terms of compensation? How does government know that fast-food workers should make $12/hour while a housekeeper at UNC should make $15? 

It is simply enough compensation for someone's work that they can afford the basic necessities of life for themselves and their family. It only becomes complicated when the gamers and the "winner-takes-all" players in our economy thwart fairness in their quest for more for themselves at the expense of others. Rationalizations abound - but it's simple enough that a child can understand.

"afford the basic necessities of life for themselves and their family"Simple enough except for the definition of basic necessities and the size of the family (one child? eight children? Uncle Joe and the grandparents?). Basic necessities: rice and beans for dinner? Steak and potatoes every night? A new car? A ten-year old car? A bike? Bus fare? A 1000 sq ft rental apartment? A house that I own? Can I have cake every night or is that a weekly treat? Exactly what can I afford on a living wage? Who defines what you mean by basic necessities? My basic necessities are very different from Bill Gates's. He can afford much more than I can. Why is his definition any less valid than mine?I'm curious to understand this. Thanks. 

This is always the sort of smoke that gets blown into a discussion on living wage issues.Basic necessities - ponder the meaning of that. Then pay people what they need to get by comfortably. Your basic necessities are no different than Bill Gates'. What you can afford or what you may want does not in any way change what you need. I think Mick Jagger may have said it more succinctly.

Okay, so you're advocating subsistence-level living. Got it. I think the $60,000 per year proposed in this thread is an excessive wage for this kind of lifestyle.

A living wage is what it costs to live in a particular area. Here's the calculations for Orange Co:http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu/counties/37135Compare those calculations to those for other NC counties. What is interesting to me is to compare Orange with Chatham and Alamance which is where a lot of UNC Facilities employees live and where so many presume that it is cheaper to live:http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu/counties/37001 http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu/counties/37037 By these calculations it is cheaper to live in Orange. But then compare Orange to Person County where there is another large cohort of UNC Facilities staff and it is clearly cheaper to live in Person:http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu/counties/37145 The problem for the housekeepers living that far away is transportation. They don't work regular hours so the only other people they can carpool with are other housekeepers who work the same shift. 

Thanks for this data. It's very interesting. http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu/counties/37135From the living wage table, a living wage for a family of four in our area is $29.20. This is $60,736 annually. I assume that people who would earn a living wage are doing some form of unskilled labor like the housekeepers in this thread.Below this table is another with data for average hourly wages in our area:Management $40.94 Business and Financial Operations$25.01 Computer and Mathematical$28.80 Architecture and Engineering$27.32 Life, Physical and social Science$26.09 Community and Social Services$17.42 Legal$29.31 Surely, someone earning a living wage wouldn't earn the same amount as a professional with at least a BS/BA, a JD or a master's degree. That doesn't possibly make sense. If you can make $29 moving trash, then why would you ever want to improve yourself through education? And how could society possibly afford the taxes if housekeepers are earning that much money? Someone flipping hamburgers isn't worth $29 per hour. No one would buy the burgers. All the fast food places would go out of business.I must have something wrong. Am I reading this information correctly?

The problem is as you are defining it. We can either take the ethical pathway and pay people what they need to live here, or we can adopt policies and practices that reduce the cost of living here. Probably we will need to do both, but there is elasticity between the two options and it is obviously not feasible to pay our less skilled workers the same hourly wage as our professors earn.That's why our elected officials have finally understood that we need to encourage more local business development. Businesses reduces the cost of housing since residential housing doesn't pay for itself but businesses pay (taxes) for more than they use. And hopefully, having more local employment opportunities means that more people can live and work here. Specifically, locally-owned businesses keep the money in the community (recirculating the money earned rather than sending it out of community) .  

 Look at what you wrote: "The problem is as you are defining it.  We can either take the ethical pathway and pay people what they need to live here, or we can adopt policies and practices that reduce the cost of living here." Why did you use the word "ethical" to describe the first one but not the second one?  They are both directly related to a living wage.  Yes, one of the ways businesses cut costs is to keep the wage they pay their workers down, which of course results in lower wages for their workers, but it also results in more money in the pockets of everybody that shops at that business.  OTOH, higher wages for a business results higher wages for their workers but it also results in less money in the pockets of everybody that shops at that business.  Why is one worthy of the "ethical" label and the other not?And I'm going to have to disagree with you about the local thing.  First of all, there are tons of local employment opportunities provided by UNC that result in people not being able to live here.  Local employment opportunities mean that people work here but it doesn't mean that people live here. And as far as shopping locally, if that were the big important thing then the more isolated a community was the better off financially it would be and also large world-class universities such as UNC would be considered the enemy by people that thought that local was best.  Are either of those true? Systematically eliminating 99% of potential vendors from getting your business, which is what reflexively saying "Shop local" does, is a bad thing just via reasoning.  The point of businesses is to have them compete.  If they're not competing then they can give you what they want instead of what you want.

I think I understand what you're proposing:1. Increase our lowest wages to a 'living wage'2. Reduce the cost of living in Orange County by shifting the tax burden onto businessesIt still isn't clear to me at what point a wage becomes a living wage, but I assume that the living wage is significantly above the current minimum wage. Why would a business want to locate or operate in Orange County if their cost of doing business (living wage) is significantly higher than in Durham or Chatham or Wake or wherever? I don't think that they would because it would make them uncompetitive. If McDonald's has to pay its counter staff $50,000 (or $40,000 or $30,000) per year in Orange County, expect to buy your burgers in Durham because they will be very expensive. Have government implement price controls on burgers? Then you're into central planning, which is notoriously poor at managing an economy.If the solution then is to extend the living wage across the state, then very few people will be able to afford burgers or much else. Because of the living wage, the cost of doing business would skyrocket. And the cost of living would skyrocket as well. If they could, people would drive to neighboring states to buy things. Business revenues would decline as businesses left, and accordingly, tax receipts would fall. The burden of taxes would once again fall onto property owners.I understand the desire to help the less fortunate. I don't understand how the living wage is supposed to work. 

Do a little bit of research on the cost of social services, the cost of emergency room care, etc. We are paying for people to make less than a living wage, but those costs are hidden, or a least not obvious to anyone who isn't looking.As a society we have a moral obligation to make sure that everyone has their basic food, shelter and safety needs met. If that costs $50,000 for a family of 4, then the individual wage earners don't have to each earn $50,000 but if that family can't earn enough, the rest of us pay the difference in higher medical costs due to overuse of the ER and the avoidance of routine care, higher taxes to provide social services, and, in some area, a higher crime rate.You can justify or criticize this all you want, but to me the bottom line is one of morality. In my book, it is immoral for some families to have millions while other familes cannot afford to feed their children. In a moral society, we would focus on those who are in need rather than arguing to protect the rights of those who have excessive wealth. Because after all, at least part of that wealth can always be traced back to the labors of those who have little or nothing. My preference is to live in a moral society. But the justifications can be achieved through economic reasoning if you don't share my morality. 

"In a moral society, we would focus on those who are in need rather than arguing to protect the rights of those who have excessive wealth."I don't know how you determine excessive. I expect by the standards of many third-world countries, most every American is excessively wealthy. Are you prepared to surrender your wealth for some greater good, whatever that might be?I would argue that in a moral society, we should focus on protecting everyone's freedoms and rights as defined by the Constitution. People come to America because of its freedoms not because of our excessive social welfare net."As a society we have a moral obligation to make sure that everyone has their basic food, shelter and safety needs met." This is called moral hazard not morality. By minimizing down-side risk and creating no incentive for improvement, you encourage a dole mentality. How many more illegals would we have here if we provided them with instant welfare? How is that fair for the taxpayer? Why would anyone work if they're guaranteed food, shelter and healthcare? Do a little research on how a free market economy allocates resources. Your conflation of morality and wealth concerns me. But I expect that on this blog site, your views are in the majority.Good luck. 

Market wages are based on supply not importance or moral value. Unskilled refers to their education and training. Since there are many people who can be a housekeeper, their wages are not high. For a job in this category, making 25K is pretty good. What do I know about housekeeping at UNC? I am good friends with several UNC housekeepers. I have volunteered with many (Karen and Burmese) through my church. I helped several to learn about banking. I help one family naviage Social Security Disability. I helped another family (both husband and wife are housekeepers) apply for a Habitat house. I know a heck of a lot more about their finances than you do. I know how hard they work and what great people they are and how lucky America is to have them here. But I am realistic about what they should expect in salary. And I don't look down on them because of that.



Perhaps not very moral, but obviously very important to consumers in Alberta: http://www.businessinsider.com/prostitutes-in-alberta-2011-6

is all a very interesting discussion. I for the life of me could not define a
living wage, but I plowed ahead reading this discussion and it certainly raises
issues that articulate put-downs can't overcome.

wages are based on supply not importance or moral value."
Have you
noticed that CEO salaries are not discussed in re this statement? Not even
those CEO's destroying their company or our country has any problem, certainly
not with morality.

will be interesting as to how long it will take American workers to realize the
"global economy", so beloved by free market capitalists, is going to
take them down to the wages of China, India and the other sources of almost all
our products, and later services. Never mind that our excessively wealthy
have no clue as to how the squashed working and middle classes will be able to
buy their products and services. There's plenty of time to worry about that

guess the sad thing is that all these things that are so loved about our freedoms will not
save our freedoms or the comfortable lifestyle we now assume.

too, work with the Karen/Burmese people through my church. They are a wonderful
and hard working people. They are greatly subsidized in both income and
services and in the "normal" world they would have faced an almost
impossible task finding employment in our community. They truly make the most
of what they have. The living wage is not a valid issue of their


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