MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – After 13 years on the housekeeping staff at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Livia Herrera saw her wages rise by almost $3 an hour in July.
So did more than a dozen of her co-workers, whose hourly pay increased to a minimum of $10.27 per hour.
The July 1 increase is due to a living-wage policy adopted by the university. The hourly rate is in addition to health benefits, which the university will continue to cover at 80 percent.
“The difference is big,” said Herrera’s supervisor, Eduardo Torres, who also will benefit from the new policy.
“It’s going to help us a lot, thank God,” said co-worker Norma Darias.
According to Anthony Vinciguerra, director of the university’s Center for Justice and Peace, St. Thomas, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Miami, is one of only two Catholic universities in the nation to implement a living-wage policy. Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington is the other.
The new policy directly affects about 20 housekeeping and grounds maintenance employees. But Monsignor Franklyn Casale, president of St. Thomas, said the school will keep the living wage in mind when it negotiates with subcontractors.
“It is our hope that this pay increase will not only benefit our employees but also create a precedent throughout the region,” Monsignor Casale said. “I believe that the greatest resource of any institution is its human resource, in other words, its people. Treating people fairly and justly is part of our Catholic tradition. Paying people a living wage is the right thing to do.”
The change will cost the university an extra $100,000 dollars a year. “We felt that implementing a living-wage policy for St. Thomas University is true to our Catholic mission and important,” said Terrence L. O’Connor, the university’s vice president for administration and chief financial officer.
Before the passage of the living-wage policy, many St. Thomas University maintenance workers were earning a little over $16,000 a year – $4,000 below the federal poverty guidelines for a family of four. Workers who had been employed for more than 10 years were barely making more than $8 per hour and some with more seniority were earning even less.
Basic undergraduate tuition at St. Thomas University for the 2007-2008 academic year is $19,680, with room and board, books and other costs bringing the annual total to more than $35,000 in some cases.
The university began studying the issue last year, when Vinciguerra and Miami Auxiliary Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estevez joined with the South Florida Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice to support a workers’ rights campaign at the University of Miami.
After seeing the situation of workers at the University of Miami, Bishop Estevez and Vinciguerra wondered if it could also be happening at St. Thomas.
“All work is sacred and our faith tradition reminds us that respect and dignity must be provided to all workers,” Vinciguerra said.
The issue was raised at a meeting of the Faculty Forum, which passed a resolution supporting the university’s efforts to pay the Miami-Dade living wage and challenging it to pay the self-sufficiency standard in the future.
“I am happy to see faculty in support of fair wages for university workers,” said Tom Ryan, chairman of the religious studies department and president of the Faculty Forum.
Bruce Nissen, director of the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Florida International University, called St. Thomas’ new policy “a wonderful and bold step forward.” He said employees not earning a living wage are in what is called “working poverty.” He encouraged other private universities to consider doing what St. Thomas has done.
“I’m happy and very grateful to all the people who helped us, who spoke up for us and made (the wage increase) possible,” said housekeeper Celina Wright. “This is going to help us deal with the high cost of living, and it also gives us a sense of recognition for the work we do every day.”