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Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth’s temporary workers could be a long-term problem

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 28, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, March 30, 2019

I came across a classified advertisement last week that shows the lengths Dartmouth College will go to to save a few bucks at the expense of workers on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

In the ad, the college was looking for dishwashers, cooks and counter workers in its dining halls. The jobs paid $13.50 an hour — hardly a living wage these days.

At first, it didn’t make sense to me.

I thought most dining hall laborers were covered under the college’s contract with Local 560 of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU, for short). The contract, which is available online, indicates the starting pay for union workers is $16.67 an hour.

So how does Dartmouth get away with paying full-time workers $127 a week less than the union contract calls for?

By claiming the employees are only “temporary.”

The college then has six months before it has to make them permanent employees — and begin paying union wages. Not only do temporary workers make $3.17 less an hour, the college is off the hook for their health insurance, vacation, retirement contributions and other benefits.

If the college decides they’re no longer needed, out the door they go.

Local 560 President Chris Peck, a painter at the college for 28 years, had also seen the ad. “It irritates the hell out of me,” he said. “The college doesn’t even try to hide what it’s doing.”

I see what he means.

Dartmouth has also been advertising for full-time “temporary” custodians to work up to six months “with the possibility of promotion to benefited positions.” The ads don’t mention pay, but I’m guessing it’s not the $19 an hour that union custodians start at.

Temporary workers are losing a lot, Peck said, “but we’re still fighting for people to earn a living wage and get benefits. Dartmouth’s endowment shows they can afford it.”

With its endowment at $5.5 billion — and growing by the day — the college has a hard time crying poverty. For Dartmouth, however, shortchanging rank-and-file workers is about more than just keeping down labor costs.

It’s to the college’s advantage to keep as many workers out of Local 560 for as long as it can. New Hampshire is an “at-will” employment state. Employers are free to terminate, without cause, workers who are not under a union contract. This puts nonunion service employees at Dartmouth’s mercy.

“The college can fire them at will without us being involved,” Peck said. “We can’t go to bat for them.”

The SEIU, which has represented Dartmouth maintenance and dining workers since 1966, has about 550 members — 40 fewer than it did 10 years ago. That doesn’t sound like a big loss, but it’s come at a time when the college has added dorms and expanded dining services.

In theory, that should lead to more union jobs. But the move toward temporary dining hall workers and custodians — along with paying outside companies to handle much of the college’s painting — has taken its toll.

Other than the union and a few professors who speak up from time to time, Dartmouth’s blue-collar employees don’t have many advocates on campus.

The billionaires and captains of industry who sit on the college’s board of trustees don’t mind giving President Phil Hanlon a total compensation package of more than $1.1 million a year. They just don’t want to pay cooks and custodians any more than market forces require.

Which is a shame. “These are the employees who are on the front lines,” said Local 560 Secretary Treasurer Susan Russell, a dining hall cashier. “They’re making the food and cleaning the toilets.”

Peter Menard, 32, has worked as a cook at Dartmouth for 9½ years. The union job pays nearly $21 an hour, which allows him to own a decent car and small home in Lebanon.

“I can live comfortably,” said Menard, who has a high school diploma. “I don’t have to count pennies.”

He said he’s just glad that he didn’t have to start out as a temporary worker. “It’s not fair to them,” he told me. “They’re doing the same jobs for less money.”

In an exchange of emails, Scot Bemis, Dartmouth’s chief human resources officer, explained the college’s approach to staffing its dining halls.

Dartmouth uses temporary workers to “fill the gap” left by union employees who are out sick or have short-term disabilities, he said.

They’re hired mostly through so-called temp agencies. Under its deal with the temp agencies, the college pays $19.58 an hour for each worker sent its way, Bemis said. The worker gets $13.50. The temp agency gets the remaining six bucks and change. If workers receive any benefits, they come from the temp agency, not the college.

I understand why Dartmouth likes doing business this way. It cuts down on the number of workers who can earn higher union wages, and the temp agencies handle all the paperwork.

The college also can claim it has no control over whether the temp agencies are providing benefit packages that are less than desirable.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Last year, The New York Times wrote about an Ivy League college that requires “service workers on the payroll of an outside contractor earn the same pay and benefits they would get as direct university employees — including health insurance and pension benefits, paid vacation and child care assistance.”

The parity policy, adopted in 2002, “ended the practice of outsourcing dining, security and other such services simply to save on labor costs.”

When it comes to taking care of its service workers, Dartmouth is no Harvard.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.