The University of Michigan’s campus has more than 600 buildings spanning 3,188 acres, accounting for 77,575 students, faculty and staff who have built their livelihoods in these university buildings. It takes 17,340 U-M staff — 22.4% of the campus community — to run the campus and its 600 buildings. U-M staff outnumber both the 15,798 graduate students on campus 9,010 academic faculty. Staff have a wide range of responsibilities: they cook food at the dining halls, clean campus buildings and mow lawns to keep the University looking nice. They are the backbone of the University: The reason the campus survives boils down to this population of U-M staff, most of whom students don’t interact with. These workers deserve better pay, benefits and support from the University itself, given the consequential work they do to keep its cogs turning.
Unclean environments can affect students in various ways. Eighty-eight percent of students polled at Brigham Young University stated that an unclean environment distracted them from studying and 78% of students said that uncleanliness affected their health and increased their stress levels. U-M cleaning staff provide much more than clean spaces to students; they provide healthy environments where they can live and work freely without having to worry about outside distractions and germs. A clean university is also vital in attracting prospective students and donors who visit campus. It’s important that the University ensures its grounds and facilities are kept clean, as there’s always a chance that someone is touring the campus and questioning if they should go to the University.
Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, U-M support staff were vital to students’ return to campus. Staff were provided with instructions on how to properly clean with new protocols in place. They were given a lot of responsibility in a short period of time; essentially, they were responsible for ensuring the safety of students and staff in their return to work. In a study published by the National Library of Medicine, cleaning facilities staff’s stress severely increased after the pandemic. Amid the return to work in 2021, stress scores and depression increased significantly among cleaning workers at universities. Those who had high stress in 2019 were 20 times more likely to face similar, if not worse, stress in a return to work. While the University provided sick leave for affected staff, they advised that staff use PTO, short-term sick leave or vacation time if they needed to take off work for COVID-related reasons.
Currently, a single adult needs to make $38,858 a year to live in Ann Arbor. U-M salaries vary based on position, with cooks and kitchen staff making an average of $36,000 to $40,000 a year with the lowest yearly salary at $31,200. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, not only do some workers not receive a living wage, but some also make less than the average wage for those jobs in Michigan. There is a tradeoff, however: In working for a public university, staff receive greater benefits, particularly in health care and time off, in return for lower pay. Yet, this balance is not enough. U-M staff has too great of a responsibility to the well-being of the University to be receiving lower pay than others around the state of Michigan for doing the same work. The benefits alone are not enough to balance out differences in wages.
The University also undervalues part-time employees. While it is traditional at most companies that part-time workers do not receive health care and retirement benefits, the University still needs to cover the gaps in employee parking and time off. U-M part-time workers are expected to pay for their own parking spots during a full work shift. Not only is this economically taxing, but it also leads to issues when home football games occur and staff have trouble finding parking close to work in the first place. Though the University has partnered with TheRide, Ann Arbor’s bus service, for free employee and student bus tickets, buses do not run during football games and many that go out of town shut down after 10 p.m. and are not a viable option for longer shifts.
There needs to be a shift in what U-M staff receive in terms of both pay and benefits. These workers have proven themselves to be essential to the University in creating clean spaces and protecting students and faculty against COVID-19. Staff need better access to things like parking, time off and overall wage increases to keep up with the private market and a rising cost of living in recent years. It is crucial for the University to start treating its staff better to ensure the overall well-being of the campus and its community.
Eliza Phares is an Opinion Columnist from Portage, Michigan writing about student life and policy. She can be reached at email@example.com.