I have observed the price of a candy bar in the vending machines on the University of Michigan’s campus rise 40 percent since 2006. A Coke, 60 percent. The cost of an employee membership at the Recreational Sports facilities, 100 percent. An employee meal in a residence hall cafeteria, 145 percent.

For the members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees contracted to work at the University, this poses a significant problem. Who are these AFSCME workers, you ask? They are your custodians, maintenance mechanics, groundskeepers, bus drivers, cooks, food service workers, patient transporters and so much more.  

The University community expressed in last November’s election a concern about income inequality and what can be done about it. While those at the top are earning far more than they need, those at the bottom do not earn enough to live in the area. Maybe the fight against income inequality seemed like a distant far away battle that nothing could be done about locally, but that fight is here, on this campus.

It does not matter what a person’s job is or how much they make. If prices and the costs of everyday goods and services rise faster than their income, they lose purchasing power. For people at the bottom end of the income scale this loss is more noticeable more quickly. While President Schlissel enjoys a pay raise that by itself is more than a full-time custodian makes in a year, as a member of AFSCME, I can no longer afford the same standard of living today as I could 20, 10 or even five years ago. Unless their spouse works, they get a second job or have some other secondary source of income, they have been forced to make decisions about what they can live without. Some have no television service and drive cars older than incoming freshman. Some wear old worn-out clothing and carpool, while others live with their parents or other families to save on costs. There is a certain amount of injustice when a person gives most or all of their working adult lives to a company or organization and cannot afford the same standard of living at the end as they had at the beginning.

Low wages have made it difficult to meet basic living costs. Food prices are 30 percent higher on average than they were in 2006. Rent in the Ann Arbor area has risen 14 percent in the last five years alone. The average rent is now $1,075 per month, which would leave very little money for these workers to cover all other living expenses, assuming they have the cheapest health insurance option available and no children. They still have not paid any utilities, transportation expenses or bought any food. To combat these high living expenses, some people choose to live outside of the city, which increases traveling expenses such as gasoline and parking.

As bad as those numbers are, it only gets worse when health expenses are factored in. Since 2003, the monthly premiums these men and women pay for their health insurance have risen from zero out-of-pocket expense for premiums and a very low co-pay to $42 a month for the lowest cost Preferred Provider Organization option premiums. The University-provided prescription drug plan is still free, but there are drugs it covered then that it no longer covers, and the co-pays for generic drugs are now five times higher than they were before. The co-pay for name brand prescriptions is even higher. The problem becomes even larger if they have an adult dependent or children to carry on their insurance. 

Washtenaw Community CollegeEastern Michigan UniversityMichigan State University and Ohio State University all pay their service and maintenance employees $4,000 to $6,000 more per year than the University of Michigan, reflecting a better understanding of the cost of living in the areas those schools are located in. Not only would the men and women of AFSCME benefit from a wage increase matching those peer institutions, but the Ann Arbor area and state economy would as well. The time to tell the administration that the people who work here meeting the community’s needs on a daily basis should be paid enough to live in or near the community they serve is now.

Jeremy Phillips is a university custodian.

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